Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd
Plenary - Fifth Senedd20/03/2018
The Assembly met at 14:05 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.
I call the Members to order.
The first item is questions to the First Minister. The first question is from Lee Waters.
1. Following his recent trip to the USA, what plans does the First Minister have to further engage the Welsh diaspora? OAQ51929
Diaspora communities play an important role in promoting Wales overseas. When travelling abroad, I do regularly meet people with Welsh heritage who contribute greatly, of course, to their adopted countries. I can say to the Member, when I was in the US, I met with technology leaders in a meeting arranged by somebody who I was actually in school with—it was that close a relationship—and also with many others who work in the US cities and in Canada who are very keen to work with the Welsh Government to promote Wales as a tourist destination and, of course, as a place to invest.
Thank you. I was pleased to hear that you met tech leaders in New York, including amongst them Welsh expats who are now leading international tech firms. Tapping into the expertise and the passion of diaspora communities has been shown to be an important economic development tool. I was pleased by yesterday's announcement that you have commissioned an academic-led review into digital innovation, but it's not due to report until a year's time, and that's a long time given the pace at which artificial intelligence is developing. So, what will you do in the meantime to make sure we take practical action to put Wales on the front foot, and how will the Welsh Government engage with diaspora groups to help us deal with the challenges and opportunities presented by developments in artificial intelligence?
It's right to say that the digital world moves very, very quickly—we can see that— but, of course, the review has to look at all the issues that we will face in the future. It will be led by Professor Phil Brown, who is the distinguished research professor at Cardiff University School of Social Sciences. We want to develop, of course, the availability of good-quality jobs for everyone and to make sure that we have the skills we need not just for now but for the future.
It is important that we work with our diaspora communities, many of whom—I met them when I was in the US—have links into hotbeds of digitalisation such as Silicon Valley to make sure that we are aware of what is coming in the future and what type of skills our people will need. The review will need to do that as part of the plan we're developing to make sure that people have those skills.
First Minister, yesterday students took part in a University of Wales Trinity Saint David's tourism and hospitality conference here in the Senedd, sponsored by my colleague Mike Hedges, and one of the excellent speakers at that was Samantha Birdsell, who had left Wales after university, worked for 20 years in tourism and hospitality, including 11 years in the US, and she's now back in the UK working for Marriott hotels. She is one of the examples of a high-flier, a high-achiever who's been away and come back, and she's working in one of our key sectors for economic development. How can we actively seek other high achievers from Wales to come back, and what can you as a Welsh Government offer them to do that?
Well, we have, in conjunction with the private sector, part-funded a diaspora feasibility study that includes three key focus areas: firstly, researching how other countries engage with their diasporas; secondly, identifying and engaging with Wales's 50 most influential diaspora to determine their capacity and propensity to contribute to the shaping of a Welsh diaspora initiative; and then, of course, to determine the potential benefits to Wales of establishing its own diaspora organisation. GlobalWelsh, which is a private sector partnership, has been established as a community-interest company to develop a diaspora for Wales to support jobs and growth. It's at an early stage of its development and, of course, it's looking to draw in further private sector investment. Now, by moving forward in that way, we can seek to find out where people are, first of all, and then make sure that their skills can be utilised on Wales's behalf in the future, whether they remain in the countries where they are currently living in or whether they bring the skills back to Wales.
I think, of all the Celtic countries, we've got a lot of catching up to do when it comes to maximising the opportunities of engaging with our diaspora. There are a couple of points I'd like to raise with the First Minister—one I've raised before, and that is the decision of the Welsh Government not to continue to measure Wales's global reputation. I wonder if the First Minister could put in writing the reasons behind that decision not to measure Wales's global reputation, because I think that that is a useful indicator, particularly when we look at engaging with the diaspora and, more broadly, Wales's reputation as a trading nation. And, secondly, will he ask his officials to look into the possibility of a Welsh Government scheme to bestow on people an official Welsh Government certification of Welsh heritage so that in exchange for a considerable fee, and also, of course, a demonstration that they are of Welsh ancestry, people from across the world can have an official Welsh heritage certification from the Government that they will cherish, it will raise funds for the Welsh Government that could be put towards great efforts and projects like Wales for Africa, or give greater opportunities for young people from Wales to go and study and travel overseas.
The Member has always been a fount of original ideas, and that's one of them. It's an idea, I think, that's worthy of further examination. What I wouldn't want to do, of course, is to suggest to people that if they want to claim Welsh heritage, they've got to pay for it. But what is important is that we work with the diaspora that we have.
Just to give you an example of how far we've come, back in 2011 we had very few offices abroad. We've opened many more since then. We had no real link with the diaspora in the US, we had no link with Washington; now we host an event on Capitol Hill every single year. That is an event that's attended by many politicians on Capitol Hill. We always host events in New York; there's a new Welsh society in New York made up of young entrepreneurs of Welsh heritage—many of them from Wales originally, anyway—who want to help us, and, of course, we've just opened a new office in Montreal. Montreal is the home of some major companies that employ people in Wales, and we know that we have a diaspora in Montreal as well.
What we have done since 2011 is to look at opening new offices in parts of the world where we know that the Welsh heritage is strong in order to utilise the diaspora that exists there, and work with them to promote Wales in their home countries and, of course, make sure that we're able to open up opportunities for Welsh businesses as they look to trade with the US and Canada.
2. Will the First Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government's policy on food insecurity in Wales? OAQ51954
The Welsh Government is working with the Welsh food poverty alliance to address food insecurity, and that includes increasing the uptake of free school meals and working with food producers, manufacturers, retailers and supermarkets to help them deliver on corporate and social responsibility.
Thank you for that answer, First Minister. At the beginning of February, Emma Lewell-Buck MP had her Second Reading of her proposed Food Insecurity Bill in the House of Commons. The aim of the Bill is to ensure that UK Government establishes annual monitoring of, and reporting of, food insecurity in the UK.
I was contacted by Jig-So last month about this particular issue. They are a charity that do excellent work in this field, and they state there are two existing survey tools that have been validated and could be introduced inexpensively to measure food insecurity. First Minister, what assessment has the Welsh Government made about introducing food insecurity survey tools into Wales?
Well, we are working with the Welsh Food Poverty Alliance Wales to address food insecurity. There are a number, we understand, of food insecurity survey tools. They all collate important information that needs careful consideration. I note, for example, the recent End Hunger UK survey highlighted that a third of the UK's poorest households are skipping meals because they can't afford to put food on the table, with austerity and rising food prices driving hidden hunger. We know, of course, the situation with universal credit. So, what we want to do is to work with organisations to identify a tool that might be used in order to address food insecurity, because at the moment, of course, there seem to be a number of tools. But they all point to the same message, which is that austerity is driving people into poverty.
First Minister, the United Nations has estimated the scale of the food insecurity problem in the UK and, indeed, in other countries, but it seems to me, looking through some of the information that the UN has provided, that there's a lack of up-to-date relevant data, both on a UK level and Wales specific, so that we can fully assess the scale of this problem. I think the data that's being used is around 10 years old. Do you have any plans for the Welsh Government to collect more Welsh-specific data or, failing that, to work with the UK Government to see if we can get that data bang up to date so that we know the scale of the problem that we're dealing with?
Well, the end hunger survey was published—or rather, it reflected findings published last year by the Food Standards Agency. In fact, the End Hunger UK survey was more recent than that, even.
I can say to the Member that recent Trussell Trust analysis shows that, in areas of full universal credit roll-out of six months or more, food banks have seen a 30 per cent average increase six months after roll-out compared to the year before. These are recent figures and they show us the scale of the problem that is being caused by unending austerity.
Last week, I staged an event here with the Women's Institute on food poverty. Jig-So from Cardigan were in attendance, Food Poverty Alliance Wales were there, as were the Trussell Trust. It’s clear that the Women’s Institute want to lead a campaign on food poverty over the next few months, and there is an issue related to women here, because it is they who primarily miss out on meals in these situations, and that is something that we should be clear on given the threat of universal credit coming down the line to many communities in Wales, as has just been mentioned. What can you as a Government do to work with organisations such as the Women’s Institute to go into communities to ensure that they do their very best to support those families who are facing austerity?
Well, two things. First of all, it’s vital that we consider the situation in every part of Wales, and also that we should work with the food poverty alliance in order to deal with the issue. But what is different at present is that the level of poverty among those who are of working age is worse than among pensioners. Historically, people used to think that if they lived on a pension they were in a worse position, but that is not true, because we’ve seen so many cuts to benefits as regards those that are of working age, and that is the difference now. That’s why it’s vital to ensure that the UK Government acts to relieve the pressure on so many families’ income.
Before we move on, it’s appropriate that we mark the death of the former Secretary of State for Wales, Nicholas Edwards, Lord Crickhowell, a man whose vision transformed this area of Cardiff bay, which is home to our Parliament today. And also Ivor Richard, Lord Richard of Ammanford, who led crucial work in 2004 in preparing the road to strengthening our National Assembly and creating a stronger Parliament for Wales. I’m sure that, as an Assembly, we extend our sympathies to the families of both men.
Questions now from the party leaders, and I call on the leader of Plaid Cymru, Leanne Wood.
Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, your Government has still not increased training places for doctors, and when my Plaid Cymru colleagues have asked about this previously, your health Secretary said he would announce doctor training places separately to those of nurses, midwives and other health professionals. Can you tell us when we can expect this long-overdue announcement?
That is something that the Cabinet Secretary for health will be able to announce in due course. We all know, of course, that it's hugely important that we provide as many training places as we can and places in areas where people can gain the greatest experience that they can, whilst, of course, building on the recruitment campaign that's been so successful in bringing doctors into Wales.
First Minister, we need that announcement sooner rather than later. Our academic institutions and health boards need assurances that you haven't forgotten about doctors. Today, we've seen plans to unveil five new medical schools in England at Sunderland, Lancashire, Lincoln, Canterbury and Chelmsford over the next three years—five new medical schools. It's relevant for Wales that these medical schools are aimed at what's known as under-doctored areas.
In Wales, of course, the progress on Bangor medical college has been painfully slow and we're still now only at the stage where your Government has only accepted students from elsewhere being given opportunities to spend more time in Bangor, rather than medical students being placed there on a permanent basis. And, incidentally, those universities that work in partnership on this are making very positive noises, which is great news. Given that even the Tories are opening new medical schools in England, do you accept that you've been painfully slow in expanding medial education in the north of Wales?
It's hugely important that medical education, when it's expanded, can provide students with the breadth of experience that they need in order to qualify, and that is a factor that always has to be taken into account. The issue around Bangor, of course, has been well explored. We are keen to make sure that as many places as possible are made available around Wales, whilst of course ensuring that people have access to as many specialisms as they can to build up their experience.
First Minister, doctor training rates are lower in Wales than in England or in Scotland. All of the organisations—the British Medical Association, the Royal College of General Practitioners and the Royal College of Physicians—have all been supporting calls for an expansion of doctor numbers in Wales. Now, we can't rely on other countries to train our doctors. We lose enough talent as it is, and by increasing capacity in England, the UK Government and the English NHS will attract even more of our future Welsh doctors. We have fewer GPs now than in 2013. We have fewer hospital doctors now than in 2014. So, the claim that you sometimes make about record numbers of health staff includes nursing assistants, it includes admin staff and it hides the fact that we are down on the number of doctors. Now, Plaid Cymru would commit to training and recruiting 1,000 new doctors for the Welsh NHS. Other countries are pressing ahead with plans to expand training places. Even Jeremy Hunt is doing it. It seems that the universities are keen. Why is Wales, under this Labour Government, lagging so far behind?
On 8 December, the Cabinet Secretary announced a £107 million investment package to support education and training programmes for healthcare professionals in Wales. That represents an increase of £12 million compared with 2017-18. That means that more than 3,500 new students will join those already studying healthcare education programmes across Wales, and the total number of people in education and training places in 2018-19 will be 9,490, compared to 8,573. There will be a 10 per cent increase in nurse training places across all four nursing fields, and 161 nurse training places in 2018-19. Now, the mistake that has been made, to my mind, by Plaid Cymru is looking at doctors in isolation. You cannot look at doctors in isolation; you have to look at the entire range of healthcare staff, and that means, of course, nurses, it means looking at those working in social care, it means making sure there are enough people to make sure that delayed transfers of care continue to go down and, of course, to make sure that you have staff like physiotherapists, who are able to provide the services that people need.
If we look at our recruitment campaign, it has been hugely successful in bringing doctors into Wales. It will never be the case, in any developed health service in Europe, that all the doctors in that health service are only trained within that health service. We want to attract the best people from around the world, and that's why, of course, our recruitment campaign has been so successful.
The leader of the opposition, Andrew R.T. Davies.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. If I could, with your indulgence, Presiding Officer, also lend my tribute to Lord Nick Edwards and Lord Richard, who were great pillars of improving the quality of life for people here in Wales, and who also carried that charge into the second chamber and stood in their respective parties as great lead role models for politicians in future generations to follow. Their loss will be keenly felt by their families, but also by their political colleagues, and we pay tribute to their efforts on behalf of Wales and, indeed, the rest of United Kingdom, today.
First Minister, yesterday it was highlighted in the press that the Welsh Government were thinking about tolling the M4 relief road. Certainly, Gerry Holtham's proposals were called 'interesting' by a Welsh Government spokesperson. If the M4 relief road does go ahead, is the Welsh Government actively considering tolling that piece of road?
So, there has been no consideration at all around tolling of the M4 relief road. Your colleague on the backbenches there, Mick Antoniw from Pontypridd, highlighted only two weeks ago that the metro system is very much like the Loch Ness monster here now for many people. But the point he was making was that routes are being lost because of the cost of the M4 relief road and also the rising costs of the metro system. If tolling is not being considered for the M4 relief road, how is the Welsh Government looking to balance the budget for these two vital infrastructure projects here in south-east Wales and, indeed, other infrastructure projects across Wales, because the two of them, on the balance sheet, just do not seem to stack up?
They come from two different pots. First of all, with regard to the M4 relief road, that was money that we intend to borrow. When it comes to the metro, that comes from other sources in terms of our own budgets, in terms of looking at the city deal for funding. They are not in competition for the same resources, and, just to re-emphasise, we are not looking to impose a toll on the M4.
I am grateful for the clarity on the tolling, but, again, you can't seem to have the two projects here in isolation, because the two projects are so massive in their capital expenditure. We know the M4 relief road, at the moment, by your own estimates to the public inquiry, will be costing £1.4 billion, and rising, I might add. The metro system is £700 million at the current estimates. Most people, as I said, would not be able to make those sums stack up. So, can you give us some clarity and certainty that you do have access to that money to build both projects and that other projects in other parts of Wales will not have to be curtailed because your capital budget will be spent or exhausted on both those projects?
One of the reasons why we couldn't proceed, or the main reason why we couldn't proceed with the M4 relief road in years gone by is because we could not pay for it out of our existing roads budget. We needed to have borrowing powers in order to pay for a road project of that magnitude. So, that is paid for from a separate pot to the roads budget, so it's not in competition with any other roads project in terms of funding. When it comes to the metro, that is being funded in a different way, looking at our own budgets, looking at the city deal budgets, to take forward that project. What I can assure Members is that the metro and the M4 are not in competition for the same funding; they come from two different pots.
Leader of the UKIP group, Neil Hamilton.
Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. As I was on my way to Cardiff yesterday, I was listening to the car radio, and the World at One was on, and, with some incredulity, I heard that the Welsh Government was consulting schoolchildren between the ages of seven and 11 for their views on Brexit—perhaps it shows the level of maturity of the Welsh Government on this issue—and was going to take their opinions into account in formulating policy. I can't believe that this is true, even though I read it subsequently on the BBC website. Amongst those whom I heard on that programme was a nine-year-old who said that she thought leaving the EU was a bad idea, because, 'One of my friends says she wants to be a singer, and if I want to go around the world to see different music, like, she won't be able to because we've left breakfast'—I think she must be a fan of the leader of the opposition's speech at the Conservative Party conference last year. Surely the First Minister must agree that this is an exercise in total fatuity.
Does he have to use a nine-year-old to fight his battles? Are things that bad in UKIP now that he has to criticise the view of a nine-year-old? I can tell you that that view was more coherent than many of the views I heard from people in his own party in the course of the referendum. He seemed to complain that the news item was a 'mawkish puff piece', playing on the—. And I quote:
'playing on the emotions of the listener in order to support the Remainer narrative that the nasty Brexiteers are stopping our children from being able to play with their friends from abroad.'
Now, if that is the level of political debate that the leader of UKIP comes up with, then give me the nine-year-old any day.
Well, actually, that particular reference—[Interruption.] Sorry, Llywydd. Actually, that particular reference referred to an 11-year-old's comment, also broadcast yesterday, where she said that, if we were to leave, a lot of people who have friends in Europe might not be able to get in. 'I'm aware that people can come into the country who may not always do good things, and they can do bad things, but, on the other hand, they do have relatives and friends. It's better to see them in real life than Skyping all the time and stuff.'
Well, these—[Interruption.] These—[Interruption.] It's not I who is bringing young children into the political debate. It's the politicisation of children that is the exercise that the Welsh Government in engaged on. Is it not inappropriate to politicise children in this way in order to pursue the Government's own political agendas?
How does the leader of UKIP think that the parents of those children think of him now? What they will see is a politician in this Chamber belittling the views of their children for his own political purposes. Now, I don't know whether he is deliberately trying to alienate parents from voting for his party, but he's done an excellent job so far.
It's not to belittle the views of children at all, but the level of maturity that is displayed in those comments of course reflects their age. Perhaps even the First Minister at that age was similarly immature; I don't know. But children of seven to 11, of course, are not yet mature, and their opinions reflect that. And even though we all mature and then our opinions are worthy of being listened to, as serious comments in political debate, I find it absolutely extraordinary that the Welsh Government is now proposing to take them seriously. We know that teachers—[Interruption.] We know that political education in schools is important, but it's also important that there should be balance, and children should be taught to be critical. Given that the Times Educational Supplement, in 2016, did an opinion poll of teachers that showed that 88 per cent of them were pro remain—75 per cent of teachers; 88 per cent of university lecturers are pro remain—isn't there a danger that, even subconsciously, if political topics of a controversial nature are taught in the classroom that balance is likely to be lost?
Let's see how many votes the leader of UKIP has managed to lose—the votes of teachers, the votes of parents, the votes of governors, the votes of grandparents, all because he's chosen, for reasons that go beyond me, to criticise the maturity of nine and 11-year-olds. We have spent our time in this Chamber, in all parties in fairness, talking about giving children a voice. Now, he's saying—and, David Melding, I heard him say it, and I think the comment is apposite—that children should be seen and not heard, which is exactly what the leader of UKIP is saying. Perhaps he may want to reflect on the fact, in managing to upset many thousands of people across Wales, that, actually, children do deserve a voice.
I wonder what the children in the gallery think of Neil Hamilton's comments.
3. What further support can the Welsh Government give to higher education in Wales? OAQ51965
Well, the support we are providing to the sector, together with the reforms we've introduced in response to the Diamond review, will create a more sustainable higher education sector in Wales and provide the most generous student support package in the UK.
First Minister, I wanted to raise the issue of the University and College Union strike. I know that talks are now ongoing about the validity of the figure that has been given for the pension deficit of £6.1 billion, and Universities UK has agreed an independent expert panel to review it. However, more strike action is still on the table, with potential disruption to exams, but, nevertheless, the strikers have the support of the students, of some of the vice chancellors, and of many of us politicians. So, I just want to ask the First Minister: what help could the Welsh Government give to reach a satisfactory conclusion of their strike?
Well, this is a strike in a devolved sector, but over a non-devolved issue. There are two things, however, that it's important for us to say. First of all, I think it is important that there is an independent valuation, so that there can be confidence in that valuation, and, secondly, as a Government, we stand ready to facilitate any discussions in order to get to a conclusion.
First Minister, one group of young people who often miss out on a university education are those from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller backgrounds. And you'll know that part of the reason for that is their poor performance at GCSEs compared to their peers. They get 30 per cent lower in terms of the individuals who actually pass five or more CGSEs at grades A* to C. Now, one of the things which your Government has done recently, which is going to make it more difficult for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children to be able to access a university education, is the axing of the minority ethnic achievement grant. Much of that, of course, was used by schools in order to support the education of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children. Will you consider reversing that decision, and what additional support are you going to provide on top of it, in order that we can address this inequality?
If I remember rightly, there were three local authorities that were particularly affected by the grant. We have made sure that money has been made available to them in order for them to provide the services that they need to. We do, however, need to look in the future as to whether the grant is targeted enough. We know that there's underachievement amongst the Gypsy/Traveller community, but, of course, in other minority ethnic communities, achievement is actually higher than in the population as a whole. So, the question for us would be: how do we look at targeting more precisely resources towards those groups that need it most?
Your Government needs to be proactive in this area. You’re right that the exact point is not devolved but, as you acknowledge, it does have a very significant impact on vast areas of the sector that are devolved. So, in being proactive, will you convene a meeting of vice-chancellors in Wales to tell them exactly what your Government’s views are on what’s happened? Would you agree with Plaid Cymru that the way in which universities have treated our lecturers is entirely disgraceful and unacceptable?
Well, what I said earlier was exactly what the union has told us, that they wish us to support them in order to have a reconsideration of the value of the pension scheme, and, secondly, to help to bring people together to see whether there’s a way forward on this. But what we cannot do, ultimately—. It would be very bad for us in Wales if the strike were to continue, so it’s very important that we bring it to a conclusion, that the institutions come to an agreement with the unions, come to a settlement, which means that the students can carry on with their studies.
4. Will the First Minister make a statement on Welsh Government support for adult part-time learning? OAQ51966
We made it clear in 'Prosperity for All' that we recognise the value of education and aim to instil in everyone a passion to learn throughout their lives. We support a range of adult learning opportunities, with a clear focus on supporting those in greatest need of our help.
I attended a seminar with the Learning and Work Institute last week, in which those in need of returning to work, and returning to education and developing their skills, were highlighted. And one of the issues that was raised was the fact that those people returning to education may find it uncomfortable and intimidating going to formal college settings, where they may be dominated by young people, who are developing their skills in those environments and have perhaps a different set of skill needs. Therefore, community learning is really important, where returning learners can develop their skills in community settings. Would you be willing to commit that to be part of the national skills strategy, and also that the new post-compulsory education and training body overseeing further education and higher education also puts community learning at the heart of their mission too?
Yes. We made it clear in 'Prosperity for All' that we recognise the value of education. We want to instill a passion for education, of course, in our people, and that means, of course, supporting those in greatest need of our help. And that means, of course, making sure that, where a community setting is the most appropriate, they are available in the future. In terms of the Tertiary Education and Research Commission for Wales, for them, their task will be to provide strategic direction and leadership for the whole PCET sector, including adult learning, and to make sure that we provide the services that people need as close to home as possible.
First Minister, the people of Newport have been promised significant investment with a new digital cluster, which could revitalise the city. Will you provide the opportunities for adults currently on low-paid employment to retrain for Newport's emerging digital economy?
Sorry, I missed the second part of that question.
Will you provide the opportunities for adults who are currently in low-paid employment to retrain—that's likely part time—for Newport's emerging digital economy?
Well, of course, in the course of this afternoon, the Assembly will know more about the employability plan, and, of course, raising people's skills, and therefore their ability to move into better-paid jobs, is an important part of that.
Of course, we have an ageing population, we have a rising retirement age, and, of course, there are future job losses looming through automation, and the older generation will need to adapt and learn new skills in a way maybe that hasn't been the case in the past. Now, the Welsh Government will therefore need to provide more support for those people at these key transition points. So, can I ask how will adult community learning fit into your employability plan so that we can ensure that all adults have the access they'll increasingly need in years to come to lifelong learning?
Well, we will shortly be consulting on the future funding and delivery structure of adult learning in Wales. We want to look at the current inequity—is the word, I think, I would use for it—of learning opportunities across Wales. Our vision for adult learning has to be one that focuses on tackling poverty, to make sure that not only do people have the skills, of course, to access the workplace, but they have the opportunity, as the Member rightly says, to learn throughout their lives. The world is a fast-changing place, and it's getting even faster, as the Member for Llanelli and others have already said. So, that consultation will be an important part of the direction that we take in terms of providing the right level of adult learning, remembering, of course, the amount of money that we've had cut from our budget since 2010.
5. What is the Welsh Government doing to improve waiting times for hospital outpatient appointments in Wales? OAQ51924
Well, the Welsh NHS has shown annual improvement in waiting times since August 2015. There was £50 million of additional expenditure in 2017-18, and ministerial scrutiny will of course make sure that that progress continues in the future and that we maintain the focus on improving the outlook when it comes to referral-to-treatment times, and also in terms of—in terms of referral-to-treatment times and, of course, all the other targets that we have in the NHS.
Thank you for that reply, First Minister. One way to reduce the hospital waiting times is to tackle the problem of missed out-patient appointments. Last year, there were nearly 300,000 missed appointments, at a cost for the NHS of more than £36 million. It is a pretty staggering figure. What action is the Welsh Government taking to reduce the number of missed out-patient hospital appointments, to reduce waiting times and release more money for front-line services in Wales, please?
Well, it's a matter for the health boards. What I have noticed, however, is that, certainly, some health boards send out appointment letters that emphasise the cost of a missed appointment. I think that's important—that people understand that. They also emphasise that if people don't turn up at an appointment, they may end up back, further down the waiting list. That is the stick. The carrot is making it as easy as possible for people to contact the department in which they have the appointment. That means, of course, not just relying on a phone line, which might be busy or only open for a few hours of the day, but being able to have an e-mail address that people can contact, and then, of course, a swift response. That is something that I have seen with ABMU and something that certainly, I think, is good practice for the rest of Wales.
People not turning up to out-patient appointments has a direct effect on ambulances and their capacity to turn up on time. Just in the last few hours, I've had a story from a constituent whereby they contacted the ambulance service at 10 o'clock one evening in Maesteg, it was categorised as a red risk of a heart attack because of the stress on that constituent, who has already had various illnesses, but still no ambulance arrived, after multiple follow-up calls. A family member also contacted the police because they were in such distress. The woman had to stay on the floor in damp weather because they didn't want to move her due to that head injury. Then, eventually, the police turned up, and then an ambulance, almost three hours later.
Now, this is really quite awful, and I think that the person who contacted me doesn't usually complain because they access the health service quite a bit, and they are the first people to praise the health service, in actual fact. My colleague, Rhun ap Iorwerth, raised the fact that this particular element of the system is broken—last week—and was met with disparaging comments from the health Secretary. If it's not broken, First Minister, can you tell us how you're going to alleviate the pain for those people who are waiting for ambulances? Because we will be perhaps criticised for living in a bubble if we're not reactive to the fact that they are experiencing these long delays and want to be seen in an appropriate manner and do not want to be waiting for hours on the streets in damp weather conditions.
Well, I can say that the eight-minute red target has been achieved for 22 consecutive months across south Wales—and South Wales Central particularly—but, of course, there are examples where that hasn't happened. Now, the Member has given an example of that. If the Member could provide me with details, confidentially, if the person doesn't want to give their—
They're happy to share.
Well, as many details as she feels appropriate. Then I will, of course, make sure that the incident is investigated.
First Minister, a large number of out-patient appointments are for diagnostic tests, where we see massive waiting lists. In December, we saw over 20,000 patients waiting more than eight weeks, and over 1,000 patients waiting for more than 24 weeks. I hope you will agree with me that this is unacceptable and will get worse due to increased demand in the coming years. First Minister, how does your Government plan to increase capacity in diagnostics to ensure nobody waits more than eight weeks?
It has already happened, because the number of people waiting over eight weeks for one of the diagnostic tests at the end of December was 38 per cent lower than at the same point last year. We have invested heavily in diagnostic tests in order to get the waiting times down, and the figures are beginning to show that. Yes, it is, of course, right to say that there is, as ever, increased year-on-year demand in the NHS, but that doesn't mean, of course, that waiting times inevitably will keep rising, as the figures show.
6. What assessment has the First Minister made of the Lobbying (Scotland) Act 2016, and how similar arrangements can be applied in Wales? OAQ51955
Well, I agree with the conclusions of the Standards of Conduct Committee’s report on lobbying that was published in January of this year.
The Lobbying (Scotland) Act 2016 is now in force, so that lobbyists in that country will have to be legally registered. The same is true in Ireland, and there is a register in London, but Wales has the weakest lobbying legislation in these islands because your Government has chosen to do nothing. We now have lobbyists co-ordinating complaints against Assembly Members to damage reputations. Media in London have alleged that lobbyists in Cardiff were involved in the complaints that led to Carl Sargeant being sacked. The leader of the opposition has claimed that lobbyists leaked Carl Sargeant's sacking before he even knew about it. Even Ofcom—a competition regulator had to terminate a contract with Deryn, a Welsh lobbying firm, after it admitted breaking the rules. The public are now asking themselves what on earth—what on earth—is going on in this place. Because, from the outside, it looks a mess. Will you now accept that there is a problem with lobbyists here and move quickly to introduce legislation that will legally register them, so we all know who they are and we all know what they're up to?
Well, none of what the Member has said has any basis in fact at all, but it's a matter for him to talk about whatever he wants to in this Chamber. I wouldn't advise him to do that outside this Chamber, by any stretch of the imagination. But, it's not a matter for Government introduce legislation. It's a matter for the Assembly itself. Let's remind ourselves that the Standards of Conduct Committee conducted an inquiry to consider whether the arrangements for transparency around lobbying were fit for purpose and appropriate to the Assembly. It reported back with five recommendations, which didn't include the establishment of a lobbying register at the present time. That is a matter for the committee itself. It's not right for the Government to introduce legislation such as this. It's a matter for the Assembly, corporately, to consider it, as it has done through the Standards of Conduct Committee.
First Minister, you have made reference to the Standards of Conduct Committee’s inquiry. The committee stated clearly—and I'm quoting here—that they
'firmly believe that Assembly Members should be treated equally with Government Members. The Committee therefore recommends that any future changes made...for Assembly Members should also apply to the Government and the Ministerial Code, and this will be considered as part of the Committee’s work in the future.'
So, do you agree with the view of the committee in relation to the ministerial code, namely that any future changes that apply to Assembly Members should also apply to members of the Government? And if so, how will you as a Government go about ensuring that that does actually occur?
Two things. First of all, the committee itself can’t change the ministerial code, but if there is any change in terms of Assembly Members, then that is a situation that I would have to consider, namely how the ministerial code should change too.
First Minister, with the new tax-raising powers just days away, and the additional powers this place is set to gain post Brexit, surely it's time to bring in lobbying reform to ensure that our democracy is as open and transparent as possible. Do you agree that this Assembly must act on lobbying reform now to help strengthen public trust in us and how we operate?
Well, I'd argue that the Assembly has already done that. The Standards of Conduct Committee has done that, and it has also said, of course, that it will keep a watching brief on the operation of the Scottish model and review the situation in 2020, with a view to setting out a firm proposal for the sixth Assembly. I do think it's hugely important that, when it comes to the way Members conduct themselves, that is a matter for the whole Assembly and not just for the Government.
7. Will the First Minister make a statement on upgrades to the road networks in Mid and West Wales? OAQ51958
We are continuing to invest in transport infrastructure in Mid and West Wales, as set out in the national transport finance plan. We are also addressing pinch points on the trunk road network through a dedicated programme.
I thank the First Minister for that reply. I'm sure he'd agree with me that upgrades are very welcome, but that they can sometimes cause disruption and economic costs, and it's important, therefore, that they should be completed as quickly as possible. At the moment, there's a resignalling project on the A477 to Pembroke Dock at its junction with the A4139. This is designated as a major European network road. It is, of course, the main route to the Irish ferry at Pembroke Dock and also the main route from Pembroke to the Cleddau bridge. Given that this is due to last for 17 weeks—that's nearly a third of the year—would it not be advisable in projects of this kind that they should be conducted not just in normal working hours but also at night or over weekends in order to reduce the economic dislocation that they will inevitably cause?
Well, it doesn't work, of course, at night, because the ferry leaves at about 02:30 to 02:45 in the morning. So, in terms of the ferry—. Yes, it is sad that I know that. But the ferries leave around 02:30 in the morning and about 14:30 in the afternoon. So, it doesn't work in terms of working at night, when it comes to ferry traffic. But just to remind Members: these works provide a safer route for pedestrians by introducing traffic signals at the junction between Ferry Lane and the A477. It's essential to improve safety. It is supported by Pembrokeshire County Council. It is currently due for completion in May this year. Now, while every attempt is made to minimise disruption, inevitably there will be some disruption. But, of course, when work is completed, it will ensure that safety is enhanced.
8. Will the First Minister outline how the Welsh Government is working to improve child health in Wales? OAQ51964
We are working to improve child health through a range of plans and actions. Our programme for government includes implementation of our Healthy Child Wales programme, a universal health programme for all families with children up to the age of seven.
Thank you, First Minister. One of the biggest health challenges children face in Wales is that of childhood obesity, where Wales has some of the worst rates in the UK and, indeed, in western Europe. So, it's absolutely vital that we start to tackle that issue. Now, it has come to my attention that, over the next three years, Wales will receive £57 million as a result of the soft drinks industry levy that is being introduced next month, and in other parts of the UK that funding is going to be directed to initiatives to tackle obesity and improve activity among children. You will be aware that the Assembly's health committee is undertaking an inquiry into the physical activity of children, and I know that the Welsh Government is working up an obesity strategy that is unlikely to be cost-neutral. What assurances can you give that some of that substantial amount of funding will be redirected to tackle childhood obesity in Wales and that the strategy itself will match the scale of the challenge that we face here?
Well, it is something that we are considering. I can say that we've received a modest amount of funding so far, because of the UK Government's expenditure in areas in England relating to school sports and breakfast clubs. That money has been allocated for maintaining free school breakfasts, new funding for summer holiday clubs, investing more in childhood immunisation and, of course, looking at taking forward a transformation fund in health. Now, when that money arrives, of course, consideration will be given to how it's best spent. But I do recognise, of course, that we have an issue that is not unique to Wales, but it's something that we face in Wales, namely childhood obesity, where extra resources would certainly be useful in terms of addressing that.
And finally, question 9—Angela Burns.
9. Will the First Minister provide details of the allocation of funding for education in Wales? OAQ51959
Education reform is a key priority for us. It reflects our efforts to get to the very highest levels of expectation for learners and teachers. And we've aligned and prioritised our budgets to our national action plan for education.
Earlier this month, your Cabinet Secretary for Education announced a £14 million injection of cash to help fund school repairs. This is a very welcome sum of money, and her statement very clearly said that every school will receive some funding. Now, throughout Wales, we have a number of new builds, either built this year or literally in the last sort of 18 months to two years. In my own constituency, I have a case of two schools, one beside the other. One is brand new and cost millions of pounds. The other one is a very old school, decades old, where they've literally had to beg and borrow in order to be able to turn it into a Welsh-medium school and to kit it out. I've been there; the roof is leaking, the tiles are falling off, et cetera. Do you think it is appropriate that every school should have some of this allocation? Would it not be more sensible—or would you consider looking at the schools that really need help to give us a good, modern-day learning environment, or as best as we can get in some of those very old school buildings we have, rather than also giving some of this money to very new builds?
Well, it is a matter for local authorities to prioritise which schools they wish to bid for funding in terms of the twenty-first century schools programme. We don't direct which schools should receive the money.
I was pleased last week to be in Ysgol Glan Clwyd in Saint Asaph, where a new extension was being built. But it is for local authorities—[Interruption.] It is for local authorities. Let's remind ourselves that, under the Member's party in England, there are no new schools being built at all. There would be no funding available and, no doubt, if they were in power in Wales, then there would be no new schools being built in Wales either.
Yes, it is difficult, of course, where a new school is built, and other schools will say, 'Well, what about us?' But that is a question that should be directed to the local authority. It is for the local authority to determine and prioritise which schools and which works they want to bid for.
Thank you, First Minister.
The next item is the business statement and announcement, and I call on the leader of the house, Julie James.
Diolch, Llywydd. There are a few changes to make to this week's business. Statements on local government and on a consultation on the draft legislation (Wales) Bill have been added to today's agenda. Additionally, the Business Committee has decided to postpone the debate led by UKIP until after the Easter recess. Business for the next three weeks is shown on the business statement and announcement found among the meeting papers, which are available to Members electronically.
Leader of the house, irrespective of the exchanges in First Minister's questions around the consultation that the Government is going to undertake for seven and 11-year-old children around their thoughts on Brexit, I'd be very grateful to understand how, if we have a statement from the Minister who's responsible, the Welsh Government are going to undertake this survey and interaction with young people. I appreciate this is the issue of the day for many people, but it's also a very political issue. I might be mistaken, but I don't think that this type of exercise on such a political issue has been undertaken by the Welsh Government before amongst such a cohort of children in our schools.
It is important that young people's voices are heard, but it is also important to understand how the Welsh Government will initiate the consultation and will work with schools to make sure there is no—and I'm not suggesting for a minute that this might be the case—creep of politicisation over the process. Without any statement coming forward from the Minister—and I can hear grumbling from the benches, but it's a legitimate point to make, because if this consultation is going to be undertaken, as the Government have indicated, other than the press comment, there has been no statement or indication from the Minister on exactly the length of time the consultation would take, the type of interaction with young people that might be undertaken, or what sort of forums will be engaged with, and I think that's a pretty relevant piece of information that Members should have access to, should parents raise concerns over this consultation, or indeed want to interact with the consultation. So, I'd be grateful if we could have a statement from the relevant Minister to indicate exactly how this consultation will be undertaken, and in particular what safeguards will be put in place.
I'm very much of the opinion that children should be both heard and seen, and should take an active role, as is appropriate for them, in any of the big issues of the day that affect their future. Obviously, that has to be an appropriate interaction with them, but those youngsters in our schools at the moment are the ones who will most be impacted by the decisions that we make, as obviously they will be on the planet longer than those of us who are a bit longer in the tooth.
So, I think it's an appropriate thing to do. I think it's important that the children are appropriately done. The Minister, I know, is intending to say something about that consultation shortly, but I'll make sure that he does so appropriately, and if that's not very imminent, then I'll make sure that he writes to all Members accordingly.
Can I draw the leader of the house's attention to the fact that today we established a cross-party group on gambling in the Assembly, and ask her to consider a Government debate on gambling? We've just had the Gambling Commission proposals around fixed-odds betting terminals, which surprised many of us who expected the upper limit to be much lower than the £30 that has been proposed. It surprised the market as well, because the betting companies' stocks and shares immediately went up. They were obviously expecting a much more rigorous regulation than we've got. The latest survey of problem gambling in Wales has identified that 4.5 per cent of Welsh males have what could be considered to be problems with gambling. Now, that's a figure that will grow. It's been identified by the chief medical officer as a public health issue for Wales, so I think a debate—we've had a backbench debate, but I think a Government debate on gambling would be apposite.
In that debate, I would like to understand exactly what powers the Government is likely to get over devolution. It was pitched as devolution of powers to stop the proliferation of fixed-odds betting terminals, but I think it only relates to a certain sum of money—I think £10 is the stake that's been mentioned. Clearly, if the Gambling Commission then changed the stake level then the devolution settlement looks a bit strange. We've pitched it at one sum, and then the Gambling Commission can change the sum, so it doesn't look like a very good devolution settlement to me. But it would be good to understand what the Government intends to do with these powers, and also the relationship of the Welsh Government to the Gambling Commission itself.
I've had interactions with many UK bodies over the years who, over the last five years in particular, have made more of an effort to involve and to talk to Assembly Members, and to realise that they represent Wales when they represent the UK, or England and Wales. The Gambling Commission is a UK body that is supposed to have interaction with Wales, but I'm not aware—it certainly hasn't talked to Assembly Members, and I think it would be interesting to know what relationship the Government has. Can the Government nominate a member of the Gambling Commission itself, for example, or does it have any formal relationship like that? So, I think a debate on gambling would be really interesting for Members, but I think also very pertinent to the acquisition of the new powers and to consider how we might use them.
The second thing I'd like to ask for is a simple statement, if we may. We've had the Brexit agreement announced yesterday between David Davis and Michel Barnier. We've seen the details of that. I don't want to go into a debate now on that—we have the Bills that we're discussing as well; we've had enough of that, perhaps. But, of course, there is still, in that agreement, the potential that the whole of the island of Ireland will remain in a customs union and single market. That pushes the border straight into Holyhead in particular, but the rest of Wales as well. There are huge implications for Wales in that. I'd just like to ask for the Welsh Government to give us a written statement, probably, setting out what the Welsh Government's interpretation and thoughts are regarding that. What are the implications for us? What do we need to prepare for? I think that's just a simple factual one to know that you have considered these issues and are prepared to, if necessary, act on them with the UK Government.
And finally, if I may, you'll have seen that today has revealed that the two founding members of New Directions, who have got the contract for supply teachers in Wales, have made nearly £1 million between them. You might wonder how on earth you can make £1 million in two years out of supply teaching. Well, I'll tell you how: you charge £1,250 for four and a half days for a history teacher, and then you pay the history teacher £130 a day. That's how you make £1 million out of supply teaching. We really should not have any profit made in supply teaching in Wales. It is completely wrong that public money is going to profit from supply teaching. There is an alternative—an alternative of a co-operative supply teaching agency, or a local authority-run supply teaching agency as, for example, food standards are held within the local authority. The previous education Minister talked about that but did nothing about it. This Government has talked about it several times but has done nothing about it. Surely it's time to draw the line under any profit from supply teachers. Just introduce some quick and easy legislation, which I think we'll support, to outlaw these practices.
Well, that was quite a range of issues that the Member raises. In terms of gambling, the Minister is going to bring a statement forward, in fact, about how we're going to use the new powers once we have them, but I think I'm right in saying that we do not have the power to appoint somebody to the commission. We have asked for the maximum stake to be reduced to £2. There's a massive campaign about this, so we're very disappointed in the outcome, which I think is a little bit of a fudge and kicking it into the long grass and not really taking responsibility. So, I think we share the disappointment that the Member expressed on that. But the Cabinet Secretary will be bringing forward a statement on the new powers and what we can do with them to make sure that we do get the best benefit.
The Chief Medical Officer for Wales, as the Member mentioned, has previously called for the maximum stake to be reduced to £2, because, clearly, you can lose an awful lot of money in a very quick amount of time on these things. It's all part of the issue around dealing with addiction to gambling and the serious impact it has on individuals and their families. I've had a couple of meetings myself with the Advertising Standards Authority, actually, about some of these issues, so I'd be more than happy to undertake to have further contact with them about some of the adverts that are seen on late-night television. For those of us who watch late-night television, it's really quite astonishing how many there are. So, I'm more than happy to undertake to bring that up with the Advertising Standards Authority as well.
In terms of Brexit, yes, I'm sure the Minister, when he's recovered from his flu, will want to make a statement about the most recent negotiation outcomes, as reported, and their effect on our position and so on. I'd like to wish him well. I very much wish he could be back tomorrow, but I fear not. I'm sure that as soon he is well enough he'll want to update Members on where we are with that.
And in terms of the supply teachers, that was a National Procurement Service contract—five entities submitted tenders. I know the Member is aware of these things. I too heard the interview on the radio this morning with the supplier in question. I'm more than happy to have a conversation with the Cabinet Secretary for Education about her view as to the sentiments expressed on that programme, but the contract was let in the normal way, through the National Procurement Service. But, as I say, I'm more than happy to have that conversation with the Cabinet Secretary for Education.
Leader of the house, in recent weeks, I've been made aware of severe restrictions on the connection of power sources, including renewable power sources, to the national grid in Merthyr Tydfil—and, so, I presume in other areas as well. It seems to me that that has significant implications for several policies of the Welsh Government, including energy generation, decarbonisation of the public sector estate, and for local economies. So, could you, leader of the house, possibly arrange to bring forward a statement from the Welsh Government about this problem and the actions that could be taken to overcome it?
Yes, we're very much aware of the issue of grid constraints, particularly in south Wales, which are restricting the ability to deliver renewable energy projects in some areas, and it's been an ongoing issue for some time. We've raised these concerns with Western Power Distribution, who manage the distribution network in south Wales. Although it's called 'the grid', it isn't, of course, a single entity. We've been assured that there are no widespread restrictions on the network, but ease and cost of connection to the network very much depend on a number of factors, like the size of the connection, where the site is, what other generation demand is already connected to the network, what the capacity already is—it's a very complex web to negotiate. So, because of that, we are convening a group to work with us on solutions to the challenges inherent in developing a grid suitable to support our future energy systems, and then we will be able, as a result of convening that group, to develop options to address Wales's grid infrastructure issues, which are very much live. I'm sure that the Cabinet Secretary, once that group has been convened, will want to update the Senedd as to how it's going and its future work progress.
Two matters, if I may, leader of the house: the first is that it's a good six weeks now since the closure of the consultation around the location of the new trauma centre for south Wales. I know that Members worked very hard to get people to contribute to that consultation. There's a very strong opinion, as you probably know, in favour of Morriston Hospital being the location for those services and, of course, being the better access for west Wales and south-west Powys. It's such an important service; I'm wondering if you might have an update from the health Secretary as soon as possible after the Easter recess.
Secondly, I wonder if I could ask you, or perhaps the Cabinet Secretary for local government, for either a short statement or perhaps a letter to Assembly Members confirming whether there is guidance available to local authorities about the use of disability bays during periods of civic construction. Constituents in Bridgend have complained that work being undertaken to comply with the Active Travel (Wales) Act 2013 has meant that disabled parking bays are full of construction materials, and that makes it particularly challenging for them to access council services, and not least to go into council offices to make an application for blue badge renewal. Thank you.
On the first matter, I was very keen that as many people as possible contributed to the consultation. The result of that, of course, is that we had a lot of contributions to the consultation, so the Cabinet Secretary, as soon as that process is finished, will be reporting back shortly after the Easter recess. He's nodding happily at me, so I'm confident in saying that.
In terms of the other matter that you raise, I have no awareness of that at all. I think it's actually the Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Transport who is responsible for that, so I suggest that you write with the specifics of that particular incident to him, because I'm not aware of that as a general problem.
Leader of the house, can I first of all support the comments from my colleague Simon Thomas as regards the gambling debate that we would look to have following the inaugural meeting of the cross-party group on gambling today? There are very strong feelings that, really, we need to tackle that issue, particularly following the news coming out of Westminster as regards the betting limit of £30, which is totally unacceptable.
My second issue is that you will be aware, leader of the house, that Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Local Health Board has been under Welsh Government targeted intervention since September 2016, which, as you know, is only one step away from special measures. Concern existed at that time about unscheduled care/unplanned care, amongst other matters. Locally, obviously, we're aware that there have been significant operational pressures on unscheduled care, as everywhere else, over the winter, and there's been a knock-on effect on the delivery of national performance targets. So, bearing all that in mind and given the fact that over a year and a half has elapsed since the Welsh Government decided to provide targeted intervention in ABMU, I'd be grateful if the Cabinet Secretary for health were to bring forward a debate with a particular focus on improvements against the targeted intervention priorities in ABMU. Thank you.
Yes, I support the Member's comments on gambling, as I indicated in response to Simon Thomas. I'm pleased to see that the cross-party group has been convened to do that, and, as I said, the Cabinet Secretary will bring forward a statement as soon as we have the powers available to us to explore what we can do with those powers. It's a very important point.
In terms of the ABMU situation that the Member raises, the Cabinet Secretary will be bringing forward an end-of-year statement summing up all of the issues involved in that. We're not very far off the end of the year with regard to that.
Leader of the house, will you join me in welcoming the credit union payroll deduction scheme, supported by Michael Sheen. I spoke at the launch event last week at Capital Law. Could you clarify how the Welsh Government is supporting this Wales-wide initiative, which benefits employers and employees in the labour market?
Could we also have a statement on the call from Ovarian Cancer Action for a Wales national clinical audit of ovarian cancer. As was highlighted to Assembly Members last week, when Ovarian Cancer Action came to the Assembly for an event sponsored by Hannah Blythyn, ovarian cancer is the UK's deadliest gynaecological cancer. On Mother's Day, I joined hundreds of others on a walk in memory of Lesley Woolcock from Barry who was a tireless campaigner on ovarian cancer, but sadly lost her life in 2016 as a result of ovarian cancer. Can I also pay tribute to Soraya Kelly who joined the walk, who's supporting TheGlovesAreOn campaign?
Yes. In terms of the credit union's payroll deduction scheme, I'm delighted to welcome the recent work—whether it's supported by famous actors or not, in fact—to boost credit union payroll deduction schemes. There has been an ongoing campaign for several years now, actually, to encourage large employers to allow payroll deduction to support the credit unions because, obviously, they offer people a great way to save and borrow responsibly and to keep control of their finances and there are real benefits for employees and employers—as Jane Hutt has pointed out—in partnering with credit unions.
I really hope employers across Wales will be involved, and I have no doubt that having a mark to recognise employers who offer payroll schemes will help to progress this. A hundred and forty organisations across Wales have already signed up to the Credit Unions of Wales payroll partner mark, so it's a very encouraging start. The Welsh Government has encouraged credit unions to visit our offices to help increase membership and to promote a responsible attitude to saving and borrowing amongst staff. The Minister for Housing and Regeneration recently wrote to the Assembly Commission, in fact, to promote the value of payroll services for National Assembly for Wales staff as well. We'll be advising them very shortly on funding awards to take forward projects from April this year, so it's a very good scheme indeed, and I hope that we can extend it right across Wales. That's very good.
Two issues, if I may, leader of the house. Firstly, as Minister for all things broadband and connectivity, I'm sure you'll join me in welcoming the UK Government's decision to pilot the 5G broadband technology in Monmouthshire. This is a great opportunity: I'm sure you'll agree with me on that. How are the Welsh Government planning to work with the UK Government on trialling this to make sure that it can be, if successful, rolled out as quickly as possible across the rest of Wales or other innovative, bespoke solutions can be developed?
Secondly, many of my constituents are deeply worried about Aneurin Bevan health board's decision to close the St Pierre dementia ward at Chepstow hospital. I appreciate that this is a health board matter, but I wonder if we could have a statement on guidance to local health boards on ensuring that vulnerable people are not left—because of health board decisions—having to travel very long, unreasonable distances to access the dementia care that they need.
I'll do those in reverse order: the Cabinet Secretary is saying that he's happy to look at any issues that the Member is aware of in that regard, so I'd suggest that you write with any particulars that you have and he can address them in that way.
I thought I was going to get away with not mentioning the word 'broadband' today, but there we are; it's not to be. Actually, I had a very useful meeting with Monmouth council and the councillors there about broadband in Monmouth and about the 5G roll-out, so we're very happy to support them and we had a very useful meeting about how we could do that. We continue to push for several 5G pilots in various places in Wales. I continue to be very concerned, as I've said very often in this Chamber, about the way that the UK Government intends to approach the sale of 5G technology and we'll be keeping very much a weather eye on that and consulting in all of the usual ways that we do.
I wanted to ask for a ministerial statement in relation to what’s happening with the private sector’s involvement in the safety of flats that come under the aluminium composite material scenario. I know that the Westminster Government is looking into this situation, but when we received evidence to the committee chaired by John Griffiths, it became clear that much of the private sector hadn’t been involved with this situation; hadn’t provided information as to whether there was ACM cladding on their buildings; and I have met with a number of tenant groups in the private sector who are concerned that they will have to pay the bill if there are problems. So, before we break for recess, I wanted to ask for an update on our return, so that we can understand what’s happening specifically in the private sector.
Yes. I understand that we've made excellent progress, actually, in engaging with private owners and managing agents of around 105 high-rise residential blocks across Wales, but the Minister's indicating that she's happy to update us about where we are at the moment. So, fortunately for you, she's sitting behind me indicating her agreement to that.
Leader of the house, I'm afraid you're not getting away from broadband because my question comes from correspondence that I've received from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. They've brought to my attention a lack of broadband at their St David's Head station.
They assure me that it's the only RNLI station in the whole of the UK without broadband. A fast, reliable service, as you can imagine, is vital to getting a lifeboat to those who need it, when they need it. At the moment, the launch of the lifeboat can be unreliable due to poor radio links, particularly in bad weather, when, of course, a lifeboat is most likely to be needed. The RNLI inform me that they're in the process of updating their launch system in St David's, but reliable broadband is critical. It seems that they've fallen off the end of the system that has been hugely successful, but in this case, is completely missing.
So, I suppose my question is: would you have a word with the Cabinet Secretary responsible for broadband—that is yourself—and talk and engage BT in some talks about installing broadband, in whichever way they do it, to this lifeboat station in St David's, so that it isn't the only RNLI station without broadband in the UK?
Yes. Joyce Watson makes an excellent point, and it's a very important point as well. I'm certainly going to be raising the issue with both Openreach and with my officials to see if we can sort out some issues with them as soon as possible. We have some issues in the pipeline that are commercially confidential around new procurements, but I'm hoping to have a resolution to them this week. So, hopefully, we'll have some good news before the Easter recess on that point.
My first question was actually asked by Mr Nick Ramsay, and eloquently you answered it.
My second one is, actually, one of my constituents walked into my office and the local council asked him to make—. Because his business is not doing very well, after 30 years he wants to close it down, so he went to the council and the local council said, 'If you shut the shop, you have to pay the full rate, but if you keep the shop open, you'll pay half rates.' Is it the case that Caerphilly council is doing in the area for the rates? Could you ask your local government Minister to explain why these businesses who are struggling to survive, for the rates and everything, and why they're having such knock-on effects? When they are in business, they have to pay half rates, but if they are not in business, they've got to pay full rates for the properties.
I think that's a very specific issue, that's not suitable to be addressed as a statement. I suggest you write to the Cabinet Secretary for a specific answer to that problem.
Whilst we've been in the Chamber, you might have seen it's been reported that emergency services have been sent to RAF Valley after a Hawk aircraft flown by the Red Arrows display team has crashed. Members may be concerned. Hopefully there haven't been injuries or fatalities, but we know that 1,500 people work on the base and there's also residential accommodation on and surrounding the base. Could the Welsh Government, therefore, urgently establish what we know and make a written statement for Members, so that we can be appraised of the circumstances?
And secondly, and finally, on a happier note, would you join me in congratulating Glyndŵr University, which is celebrating its first 10 years as a university?
Yes, I'm aware of the incident at RAF Valley. My colleague has actually left the Chamber in order to ascertain more information. I have no further information as yet. I'm sure as more information becomes available, we will make it available to the Senedd.
And yes, of course, I'm very happy to join with the Member in congratulating Glyndŵr University on that anniversary.
Thank you, leader of the house.
That brings us to the statement by the Cabinet Secretary for Local Government and Public Services, and that is a statement on local government. I call on the Cabinet Secretary to make the statement. Alun Davies.
Diolch yn fawr. Llywydd, I believe in local government. I was brought up in a house where both my parents worked in delivering local services in Tredegar. For me, local government is not simply about structures and lines on maps. For me, this debate is about people, and it is about who we are as a people.
I want us to discuss and debate how we strengthen and empower communities and councils across Wales. I agree with those people who have argued that we need devolution of powers, not simply to Wales, but throughout Wales as well. I have already asked council leaders what new and additional powers they want to better deliver high-quality services and to shape the future of the communities that they represent.
I am committed to delivering more powers to Welsh local government and I want to give those new powers to councils that are robust and sustainable enough to use them. I hope that this will be an enriching and positive debate. All too often in the past, we have all focused solely on the challenges facing councils, whether those are financial or otherwise. I hope that we can now focus on the opportunities that we can help create for local authorities in Wales—councils with more freedom and powers, which are bolder and more innovative, and which can deliver the best solutions for their communities and shape their futures.
We all want to see more people coming into local government to serve as councillors. We need councillors, old and new, who reflect the diversity of our communities and are value driven, capable and energetic, working hard to improve people’s lives for the better. We also all want to see strong democratic debate and accountability rooted in the communities we serve. And that includes community and town councils, which play an important part in the delivery of strong local government. While the role of councillors and their relationship with the communities they represent has changed dramatically in the last 10 years, they remain the life blood of local government. Communities have high expectations for public services and councillors across Wales are making some very tough choices. I want to ensure that they have the support, recognition and reward they need and deserve for the crucial role that they play in our democracy.
Presiding Officer, I simply do not believe that this vision of powerful, robust and energised local government can be built without a serious debate about local government structures. Wales needs strong, effective, empowered local authorities that can weather continued austerity and build local democratic structures fit for future generations. Our local authorities need to have the capacity and capability to develop and implement the bold new solutions demanded by the increasing challenges they face.
I know local government has made some very real efforts to change, adapt and invest for the future, but I also understand that in the face of UK Government cuts, there are limited options for ensuring the future sustainability of local services. There is a general acceptance that things cannot carry on as they are and a general acknowledgement that more money, even if it were available, would not necessarily solve all of these problems
Working together regionally remains crucial. It is central to our model of delivery in education and social services, and has been led proactively by local government through the city and growth deals. This must continue and I know that local government leaders remain committed to working regionally. I am committed to working with local government to secure change. I have already announced proposals to increase participation and to improve the democratic process for everyone in Wales, and will continue to work hard to deliver this shared vision.
The Green Paper consultation that I am launching today sets out the proposals to explore the possibility of creating larger, stronger councils. The Green Paper sets out for debate possible options on how this can be achieved. These options include voluntary mergers, a phased approach with early adopters merging first, followed by other authorities, or finally, a comprehensive programme to create a new structure for local government.
Presiding Officer, bringing local authorities together, whilst making a range of changes designed to reinvigorate the democratic process and strengthen the role of elected members, offers us an opportunity to deliver democratically accountable, high-quality and sustainable public organisations that can address the many economic and social changes and challenges that our communities face now, and in the future.
I believe it is important, as part of this debate, to have an agreed future footprint for local government. While I believe that such a future footprint is crucial, I am open to a discussion on what this might look like. The Green Paper sets out an approach that reflects the thinking of the Williams commission and builds on feedback from previous consultations to stimulate discussion to arrive at an agreed approach. I recognise that there are a number of challenges in creating larger, stronger authorities. These challenges are not insurmountable; they are potentially complex and overcoming them will require commitment and leadership at all levels of Government. However, in themselves, they are not reasons for avoiding delivering changes to help transform and sustain our public services for the future.
I believe that local government has the vision and ambition to transform our communities and that we, as the Welsh Government, need to equip them to realise those ambitions. I am making proposals today, but I remain committed to a conversation and would welcome any additional proposals from others. Presiding Officer, I hope now that we can have that positive, constructive and optimistic conversation about how we empower and strengthen local government for the future.
Llywydd, today, we were called at 10:30 as spokespeople to meet with the Cabinet Secretary to discuss the proposals going forward, and I thank the Cabinet Secretary for that. He has maintained since he came into post that he wanted to do so with absolute respect, and that's something we want to work forward to, in positive, going forward, terms. However, I have to be honest, to then present a Green Paper 70 pages long with very little time to absorb it and be able to scrutinise you directly doesn't give us much, and I think there is a lack of respect there. However, we move on; we are where we are, and we do have spokespersons' questions tomorrow, so no doubt I'll be teasing some of the more contentious points out.
But, you know, reform in any guise, however required, can be contentious, especially given that this is yet another attempt by your Government to get a grip of a failed local government system, and it's failed under a Welsh Labour Government. I don't blame our hard-working staff, our officers or our elected members across all 22 authorities. The blame for 20 years of running our local government system to a point that's been described by the WLGA as seeing services
'wearing down to the point of collapse and the public are...frustrated in terms of paying council tax and yet seeing key community functions cut or closed'—.
Indeed, it is telling that there is actually no mention in this about even improving the quality of services to local residents, no mention of the fundamental principles required with any reform, of financial governance, democratic accountability and financial probity. We know the whole position currently is unsustainable and that something has to give. Again, that is what the WLGA say.
The biggest area in local government where up-front savings could be made without wholesale restructuring is through joint working in back-office services, and that's been raised with all the regulatory bodies and others who are interested in us delivering public services effectively across Wales. That doesn't require any change to legislation, doesn't affect democratic representation, and could be initiated immediately. The back-office aspects of local government are relegated to pages 41 and 42 of the Green Paper, and one very much gets the impression that it is an afterthought. That, to me, speaks many volumes in that not only has this Welsh Labour Government run our health service down since devolution, but, through a lack of strategic vision and leadership, we now have a very broken system of public services here in Wales.
You reference the Williams commission in your Green Paper, highlighting some of the problems facing local government. Yet, it doesn't acknowledge many of the other 62 recommendations made by that commission.
This will now be the third attempt and third announcement that there is an intention by your Government to gerrymander—I mean reorganise local government. Over the past seven years, in my role as the Welsh Conservative spokesperson on local government, this portfolio has changed hands in the Cabinet no less than five times with three varying models of local government reform going forward. I suppose my first question to the Cabinet Secretary himself is: do you believe, in all honesty, that you will even still be in post to see the actual delivery of any fundamental and positive reform moving forward?
In 2016, it was also reported that your predecessor, Mark Drakeford, promised the Carmarthenshire council leader his council would stand alone for at least 10 years, instead supporting the option of regional working. We now find out that the Green Paper seeks to scrap regional working and, in doing so, you are throwing councils, their staff, into more turmoil and uncertainty.
Now, I think this comes to three proposals for local government reform in two years. The number of publications and consultations listed in annex A—eight in two years—demonstrates just how long a journey it has been from Williams to now. It has certainly not been direct. I note the options outlined in the Green Paper and consider that only one protects local authorities from voluntary mergers. Were your predecessor's assurances to Carmarthenshire council, therefore, wrong with regard to option 1 and voluntary mergers? Now that these are back on the table, will you be making approaches to those authorities, and what have you done to date for those who came forward with voluntary proposal mergers before, to make amends to those that were quite badly thrown out by a previous Cabinet, well, a Minister, at the time?
With regard to options 2 and 3, we face the same concerns regarding the actual process towards mergers. Where is your cost analysis for actually implementing a system that will, in effect, see 22 local authorities taken down to 10? On council tax harmonisation, little is said within this paper. It says that there's been convergence, and, in the majority of places, the differences today are small and this should not be an insurmountable issue. But we know, in Monmouthshire, for instance, for band E properties, it's £300 less than Blaenau Gwent. And you actually seriously want to merge Blaenau Gwent, Torfaen, with Monmouthshire. We know what this is about. This is about working with the new electoral system, going forward. And it is—this is a political reform. It's not about bringing good services to our people.
On transition committees and shadow authorities, we have the same questions as in the last Assembly. How will they be accountable? What will the cost be? Who will safeguard and plan them well ahead? I note you've explained you intend to devolve significant powers to local authorities—it's taken you 20 years to actually even think of doing that—for example, land use, planning, housing, skills, transport and environment, as well as issues relating to funding, finance and taxation. Cabinet Secretary, this is a considerable breadth of scope, and I do remain, actually, cynical as to whether this Welsh Government is up for it. Essentially, offering up more ways to tax our hard-working local residents—we know that the Local Government Association Labour group in England has called for higher council tax, a new land value tax and a hotel tax, so will he—
Can I just ask you to bring your questions to a close? You've now taken longer than the Cabinet Secretary. So, if you can draw your questions to a close.
Okay. Okay. With your proposals for larger local authorities, does the Cabinet Secretary envisage that councillors will be elected by proportional representation or first-past-the-post? We would like the answer to that today. And, finally, will you confirm how many council leaders have asked you to leave their councils alone and actually continue in the model now of 22 local authorities? How many council leaders, Cabinet Secretary, in all honesty? Thank you.
I think Members across the whole Chamber will be glad to hear that the Conservatives do finally have a couple of questions at the end of that. I will say to the Member that I finished my statement with the words that I hoped that we can now have a positive, constructive and optimistic conversation. Perhaps that, in itself, was optimistic. The Member has listed a number of consultations and the process we've been through over the last few years. What she failed to mention is the fact that she hasn't supported a single one of those proposals, and neither has she brought forward any proposals of her own. You know, it isn't sufficient—. And let me say this, let me say this very, very clearly: it is an inadequate response to the challenges faced by local government to simply say and repeat speeches that were made one year and two years ago. That's an inadequate response. It's an inadequate response. It's an inadequate response. It's an inadequate response to what is being proposed today, and what is being proposed in this White Paper. Let me say this: the Member concerned, the Conservative party—[Interruption.] You've asked the questions; I'm quite prepared to sit down if you're not prepared to listen to the answers. Let me say this: the Conservatives describe our local government system as a failed system and a broken system. I reject that. I reject that description. I reject it completely. I reject the criticism that she makes of local government leaders, and I reject the criticism she makes of the way in which local government is currently being managed in Wales. What I want to do is not look for difficulties and look for where there are challenges facing local government. What I want to be able to do is to look at the future for local government and to be positive about that future.
The Member asks about voting systems, and she uses some pretty poor language in order to describe her concerns. But I have to say to her, I made that statement—[Interruption.] I made that statement—I made that statement, in January, on electoral systems. We have not revised that in any way at all, and that forms a part of the basis of what we're saying today. But I hope that the Conservatives will break with the habit of a lifetime and look towards a positive future for local government in Wales. I hope that they will engage in this process—they haven't to date, but I hope that they will do so. And let me emphasise again, Presiding Officer, this is a Green Paper process. It is not a conclusion of a conversation; it is a beginning of a conversation. I want to hear, and I will be proactively seeking to hear, not only what people have to say about the proposals that I make in this document, in this Green Paper, but proposals that others wish to make as well and proposals that they have to empower local authorities, proposals that they have to make local government more robust and more powerful in the future, proposals that they have in order to devolve more powers from this place to local government across Wales, proposals that they have to improve the delivery of services, and proposals that they have in order to strengthen and empower democratic accountability and our local democratic debates across Wales. So far from the Conservatives, whenever the difficult questions are asked, all we hear is a deafening silence.
Like the Cabinet Secretary, I was brought up in a home where both my parents worked for a local council, providing local services to children and adults in Gwynedd. I’ve been a community councillor and a county councillor, and I share the Cabinet Secretary’s view on the importance of local government. This is the safety net that safeguards our most vulnerable people and communities. The task is becoming increasingly difficult as the austerity policies bite, and I have the utmost respect for the work undertaken by our local councils across Wales.
Therefore, what on earth is going on in this Government’s ranks? Today, we received confirmation of a far-reaching u-turn on the future of our councils. After two years of going in one direction under the leadership of Mark Drakeford, we see a new Cabinet Secretary bringing a Green Paper forward that is a substantial and shocking u-turn. This saga—indeed, this farce—poses fundamental questions of the ability of this Government to govern effectively, and poses fundamental questions of the current leadership of the Government.
You will recall in July 2015 that there was an announcement by Leighton Andrews, the Minister for local government at that time, that proposed the creation of eight or nine local authorities from the 22 we currently have. You’ll recall the storm of protest that emerged from that, and, by the time of the publication of the Labour manifesto before the 2016 Assembly, that had been ditched. There was no commitment to that number of councils or, indeed, any number of councils that Labour would want to create. Unison said at that time:
'We are in a state of limbo...the workforce is anxious and fearful of the future.'
Leighton Andrews lost his seat in Rhondda in May 2016, given the substantial victory of my friend Leanne Wood, the leader of Plaid Cymru. Mark Drakeford became Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Local Government, and there were new proposals on the table. Merging councils through legislation had been scrapped, and mandatory regionalisation of certain services was a central option to the Drakeford vision. And here we are, almost three years later, and under the stewardship of a new Cabinet Secretary yet again—the third Cabinet Secretary for local government in three years. And we are back to a map very similar to the Leighton Andrews map. He had eight or nine new councils; today, we have 10.
Therefore, I would like to ask: why will council mergers attract support this time when it failed last time to do so? Can you confirm that the timetable in option 2 would mean that councils will have until 2027 to merge? I think Janet Finch-Saunders asked that question, but I didn’t hear any response to it. Mark Drakeford had guaranteed that there wouldn’t be change for 10 years. I’m already receiving messages asking for confirmation of that, so I would be grateful if you could confirm that. In terms of the new powers to be devolved to these new councils, what will those powers be? And will funding follow those new powers? Finally, will your Government carry out an analysis of how much the option of merging councils will cost?
To conclude, there are three things that have become clear. Once again, local government is in limbo. Once again, staff are uncertain about their own futures. And once again, we’re going round and round in circles recycling proposals and restarting conversations that have been held unsuccessfully in the past, and there is no sign of progress from this ineffective Government.
I’m still going to be continuing with my optimism with the kinds of questions that we’re having, because what I hear from the spokesperson for Plaid Cymru is a reiteration of history; a historic argument, but without offering any new ideas. That’s what we’re not seeing in this. None of the opposition parties that we’ve heard from already have any ideas at all about how we’re going to move forward.
So, may I say this very clearly? I have been talking to council leaders the length and breadth of Wales, including Plaid Cymru leaders, and I’m going to tell you this: nobody is going to say that they’re content with the current situation and feel that the current structures are sustainable for the future. And I have to face that. I have to face that. It is possible for you to look back to past elections, but I have to look to the future; I have to look forward and think about the kinds of structures that will give a certainty for council staff and for the people who use local services.
It’s not enough not to take part in this debate about the future. And I’ll say this: I want to seek agreement with local government. I don’t want to push change through unless there’s support for it. I want to spend time having these discussions. I want to spend time leading this debate. I want to have the kind of debate across Wales to ensure that we do get that agreement, ultimately, so that there is agreement on the way forward. And I’m willing to invest time to do that. I’m willing to invest the resources, as a Government, to ensure that we do get that agreement. But we also have to have leadership. We have to have that leadership, and it’s not enough to look back. When you’re trying to lead, you have to look forward.
I’m having discussions at the moment about the kinds of powers that we can transfer to local government, and I will be making a statement on that when I’m in a situation to do so. The Member asks whether funding will be available for these new powers. Well, of course, some of these powers can draw their own funds. It depends how the local authorities use these new powers. So, I want to look at how we put together a new package for local government and I’m going to be seeking agreement with local government. But, I’m going to ensure that this agreement is an agreement that is an ambitious one—ambitious for local government, ambitious for the future and ambitious for what we can do as a nation.
Thank you for your statement, Cabinet Secretary. I know that you are very well aware of my very deep concerns about the impact of attempting a major restructure of local government during a time of austerity, and can I take this opportunity to remind the Cabinet Secretary that in the last Assembly, Torfaen submitted a proposal for a voluntary merger, which was declined? So, there is absolutely no shortage of willingness to collaborate in Torfaen. I do have some questions. My priority is to get through these years of austerity while trying to secure the best possible public services. Now, we know that services are under stress, but can I ask the Cabinet Secretary: where is the evidence that this is because of structure, rather than the impact of austerity and growing demand, neither of which will be stemmed by reorganisation? Can I ask what the Welsh Government's estimates—? I'm assuming that the Green Paper has been costed. What are the costs of reorganisation, and how will it be paid for, given the current shortage of resources? And would you agree with me, Cabinet Secretary, that the city deals and other joint working show that, with negotiation and perseverance, regional working can, indeed, make an impact?
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) took the Chair.
Yes, regional working is a crucial and critical part of what we're doing. This is not an either/or, if you like. This is about creating the units of governance with the capacity and the strategic ability to empower and to drive forward regional working. You and I both supported the proposed merger of Torfaen and Blaenau Gwent in the previous Assembly, and I think you and I both spoke in favour of that at the time. We certainly both met our respective council leaders at the time, and we certainly did provide support to them in taking that forward. I think we both share a disappointment that it didn't happen at that time, and certainly that's what I will be seeking to do now.
In answer to the previous question from the Plaid Cymru spokesperson, I hope I was very, very clear that what I'm seeking to do here is to seek agreement on how we take these matters forward. It's not simply to establish a process through this Green Paper today and then simply choose one of those options. It is to establish the debate, create a framework for that debate, create the opportunity for that discussion, and then, on our agreed proposals, which we will discuss at the end of this process, take that forward to legislation. Now, at the moment, we're not in that position. We're not in the position to actually give you some of the detailed answers that you've asked for, because we haven't taken that decision. What I don't want to do—and this is what I really don't want to do this afternoon—is to end a conversation with the conclusions of that conversation. What I want to do today is to begin that conversation and look for not just a debate on the options that I am making here—what I'm proposing here in this Green Paper—but if there is a plan that comes from either Torfaen, Blaenau Gwent or elsewhere, then let me say: I'm very, very happy to consider that. The consideration that we will be giving to these matters isn't limited to the three proposals in the Green Paper. It isn't limited to a single proposal or a number of proposals. What it is is an opportunity for people to come forward with those proposals, to come forward with those ideas, to be creative in exactly the way that the Member for Torfaen suggests local government has been creative in its approach to city deals and regional working in other ways. This is an opportunity to have that debate—that wider debate, that positive debate, that creative debate, that rich debate—and what I don't want to do today is to either finish that debate, close that debate down or limit that debate.
Thanks to the Minister for today's statement, and also for the briefing earlier today. The Welsh Government's proposed local government reforms have been long in the making, as we've heard from other contributors, and yes, we are on the third Minister who has now worked on them. So, the current Minister has inherited a difficult issue, and I think that most of the players in local government in Wales will probably be relieved, to some extent, that we've got to this point today—that is, we now have a map of the proposed councils. Because what most council leaders want is some measure of certainty for their sector in the coming years. So, although we are moving to a Green Paper, so things can still change, and are subject to consultation, hopefully we will soon know what the final map of the Welsh councils will look like. Now, that is not to say there won't be controversy over which councils we do end up with. Janet raised the issue earlier today of possible political fixing. Now, I won't use the same term, but we know that's always a possibility when boundaries change. But I think there are genuine concerns that are always likely to arise from this kind of reorganisation.
For instance, residents in largely rural Monmouthshire may well have genuine concerns about the proposed merger with the two eastern valleys councils of Torfaen and Blaenau Gwent. There may be concern too in the Vale of Glamorgan about the proposed merger with Cardiff—a major problem there being that Cardiff is an expanding city in population terms, and the planners in Cardiff would dearly love to get their hands on the remaining green fields in the Vale. But, many people living in the Vale may not wish for that quite so ardently. I'm sure there are other issues that you'll have to deal with, Minister.
RCT is a big council as it is—this is another issue—in terms of its electorate. I think we did have an inkling that a merger with Merthyr may well have been on the cards, given that a lot of the services are already shared between the two. But throwing Bridgend into the mix as well did come as something of a surprise. So, I'm sure there will be many controversies going forward. We know that there is going to be contention. So, what I do ask today is: your figure of 10 councils—is that firmly settled in your mind? What if, for instance, there is a strong lobby from various quarters for, let's say, 12 rather than 10? Would you still fairly consider those kinds of representations?
There is also the issue of voluntary mergers. You still leave some leeway for mergers to take place on a voluntary basis. But, of course, the problem with that, as we heard earlier, is that when was proposed by your predecessor but one, he then threw out all of the voluntary mergers that the councils came up with. So, how much leeway are you going to give for proposals for voluntary mergers that don't fit in with the map that you've put forward so far?
Reginal working—Lynne Neagle raised that. You cited the importance of regional working yourself in today's statement, and I think we need to encourage regional working. I know that there is some good practice going on in the use of regional working, driven by financial imperatives. We know there's a lot of stuff going on in south-east Wales where they are using shared services. Now, is it your plan—. We know that you have gone away from this comment of mandatory regional working, which Mark Drakeford was very keen to use. He kept using the term 'mandatory'. You're not using that anymore. So, how are you going to drive forward the idea of regional working? Also, once you have your councils—whether it be 10 or 12 or however many—will you still be encouraging regional working beyond the parameters of one council? Will you still be encouraging, for instance, Gwent-wide regional working, which I understand is happening in some cases at the moment? Thank you. Diolch yn fawr iawn.
I will say that the map is an indicative map, which gives indications of the direction that we would like to travel in. But, certainly, if strong cases are made, I certainly would be very prepared to look at all those cases, as I've said in answer to previous questions. This is a Green Paper process, where we are happy to consider all different proposals that will be made from any different source in order to look positively at how we can strengthen and empower local government.
I would say that I'd be very disappointed if the representatives of Monmouthshire suddenly found it so difficult to live with myself and the representative for Torfaen. You know, I was born in Monmouthshire in the 1960s—in Tredegar—and Monmouthshire as a concept goes back to the Act of Union. So, we have, over the last 500 years, gained a certain familiarity with ourselves, which I hope we haven't lost in the last 20 years. So, certainly, it's something that we have sought to recognise in the way that we are trying to bring people together. But, I have to say to the Member that everything we are proposing today is about beginning a conversation and not concluding one.
But the point that the Member makes about regional working is crucial. It's absolutely crucial. There are certain things where I think we need to be very clear in what our approach is. I don't wish to see any new authority crossing a health board or a police boundary. I think that makes sense in terms of a coherence of service delivery and in terms of regional working. The purpose of this proposed reform isn't an either/or—regional working or a different structure. It is in order to de-complexify, if you like, and in order to strengthen regional working. Many of us have had conversations, particularly those of us who represent the south Wales Valleys, about the complexity of some of our structures today, about the complexity of decision making. And what we want to be able to do is to have governance of a size that is appropriate to a country of 3 million people. What that enables us to do is to create structures that have the power to then deliver regional working in a more profound way, to have a capacity to think and to act strategically within a regional footprint, and to work alongside colleagues in order to deliver either the services or the strategic economic development that they want to see.
So, this is about not simply drawing lines on a map, it is about how we empower local government and how we strengthen local government in order to provide a more robust structure for the future.
Cabinet Secretary, it won't surprise you that I remain opposed to a merged Pembrokeshire and to forcing it back into a Dyfed model, because I remain of the view that that will lead to further centralisation of services away from Pembrokeshire. Now, I appreciate that today's Green Paper is looking to explore the approach that should be taken by the Welsh Government, which includes a single comprehensive merger programme, and I presume from that option that it would result in the Welsh Government forcing mergers if that option is adopted.
It's quite clear from the people that I represent that there is no appetite to merge Pembrokeshire back into a Dyfed model, especially given that Pembrokeshire County Council, from all parties, including your Labour colleagues on the council, just over two years ago voted in favour of a notice of motion, calling the reintroduction of the old Dyfed model unacceptable. In the circumstances, can you here, today, therefore reassure my constituents that you will not proceed with forced mergers, unless the proposals carry the will of the people that I represent?
I'm aware of the strong feelings of the Member for Preseli. Let me say this: as I said in answer to previous questions, what I'm not going to do today is to announce my conclusions of this process. I don't think, in all fairness, you would expect or anticipate me saying that. What we are providing for is three options here, only one of which you've described in your question, and one of which, of course, wouldn't provide for any of those scenarios that you've drawn in your question.
But what I would say to you is: how do we protect public services? How do we protect public service workers? How do we devolve more power closer to home, away from this place? All issues that you've brought up over the years we've spent in this Chamber together, and where there's been broad and wide agreement—how do we do that in a way that guarantees robust local accountability as well as robust local decision making? And I don't think that you would necessarily disagree with any of those objectives, although I do understand the almost emotional commitment, if you like, to Pembrokeshire as a historic county of Wales. I would not want for one moment for these proposals to be interpreted as a threat to any of those historical identities—we hold them strong, and we quite rightly hold those identities strong. It is important that we recognise those. But the delivery of public services would be, under any model, a matter for a local authority in that area, and I would certainly encourage all local authorities to ensure that jobs and services are provided as close to the citizen as possible in whatever structure we finally conclude would be relevant for the future.
First of all, can I welcome devolution in Wales of more powers to local authorities? It's a movement away from the direction of travel over the last 45 years. Some people in here may remember when local authorities controlled the police, controlled water, controlled higher education, controlled further education, all of which have been taken off local government over the last 45 years. Quite often, a local government reorganisation seems like a good time to remove powers from a local authority. So, I very much welcome that.
Of course, we're overdue a local government reorganisation. We have one every 22 years, and we should have had one last year, shouldn't we, rather than this year, but that's the direction. And every time we have a local government reorganisation, we've got it right. This is the optimum way of running local government. We had it in 1973, when I was in school, when the counties and districts inside them were perfect, then we had, 'No, you need unitary authorities.' Now we know we need very large authorities.
Why does the Cabinet Secretary believe that larger bodies in local government are more efficient and effective than smaller ones? Can I ask: is he aware of the problems that Birmingham social services, for example, have had, which is the largest local authority in Britain, possibly the largest in Europe? What population and geographical size does he think is optimum? I ask that because Powys, apparently, with a population of approximately 132,000, is fine to be stand-alone, but Pembrokeshire, as Paul Davies mentioned, with 128,000, isn't. Carmarthenshire, with 180,000, isn't. I'm trying to get behind the logic of why, in some areas, we need very big authorities. Why do Swansea and Neath Port Talbot, which are both bigger than Powys, have to be merged? I've got no problem with them merging. I'm not sure we'll get a much better authority, and there'll be costs associated with it. And to the question that was asked earlier—[Inaudible.]—the cost of reorganisation will be approximately 5 per cent of the current net expenditure. That's what happened last time, and I don't see any reason why it shouldn't be the same this time.
We've created lots in Wales over the years—lots of large bodies within the public sector. That's been the direction of travel under Conservative Governments at Westminster, under Labour, under Labour and Plaid, under Labour and the Liberal Democrats in here. We've had fewer and fewer organisations, which tend to be larger and larger. Just a question—the Cabinet Secretary might not want to answer this—but does he believe that the larger organisations in Wales, the really big ones—and you can think of some now—and the all-Wales bodies, are performing so well that we need to have more larger bodies?
Thank you. I'm glad that the Member for Swansea East welcomed the general thrust of my approach to these matters in terms of devolving powers to local government structures and bodies across Wales, and decentralising governance in Wales. I'm sure that the Member will be pleased that I do welcome that.
Do you know, the conversation that you've started in that question is exactly the conversation I want to have over the coming months? Because I do not say in this paper, and I do not believe, that there is a single optimum size or shape that fits everywhere in Wales. What is right in Powys isn't necessarily going to be right for the Valleys of south Wales, certainly isn't going to be right for the cities, and certainly wouldn't be right for areas of the north either. So, we don't seek to say here that there is an optimum shape and an optimum size for local government. What we're seeking to do is to create structures to which we can devolve additional powers and with which we can protect the roles and jobs of public service workers, so that we can deliver excellence in public services and ensure and hard-wire democratic accountability and democratic decision making within those structures, as close to the citizen as possible.
Now, how you get close to the citizen will be different in different places. I accept that, and I accept that some councils will always be larger, and others smaller than some other authorities. I accept that, and that is the nature of the country in which we live. I don't want to deliver uniformity across Wales but I do believe that we need a level of consistency in services and a consistency in democratic accountability, and a consistency in how we're able to manage our affairs. Mike Hedges and I were both in school in 1973—I suspect different schools, but we were both in school—and we were both born in and have lived in different local authority areas, and I accept that there's been a search for the right shape and the right size for authorities, and we haven't, in the past, always got those things right. That is why I start this conversation today in a way that seeks to stimulate debate and not to close down debate. I know, on occasions like this, in statements like this, Members will ask questions and they will seek definite and precise answers, but I think every so often it is right and proper that a Minister starts a debate and doesn't seek to conclude the debate in the same speech.
Can I first of all put on record, Cabinet Secretary, that I think I'd rather live next to you than with you? There may still be time for your charm to work on me, but as things stand at the moment, I'm happy as a next-door neighbour. [Laughter.]
You certainly deserve credit for your courage in pursuing issues seemingly designed to reduce your popularity, probably as much in the Labour Party, given today's speeches, as across other political parties. Look, I welcome your statement today. I think it is an interesting debate. We do, all of us, want to talk about how we progress public services in Wales. But I must say, I don't quite understand why this Green Paper starts off by saying that local government is about more than drawing lines on maps, and then on the next page you go on to draw a bunch of lines on maps. There are no options as to how those lines should be drawn. It's sort of shoved in the middle of the document as though this is the obvious way that it should be done, but there's no actual logic to it, to me.
There are lots of interesting statistics, ranging from population to council tax bases, but no recognition of the importance of the feel of an area, its character, its brand—to use the modern term. Why are you going about it in this way, rather than looking at the factors that, for instance, in my area, make Monmouthshire successful in harnessing the energy of its people, of promoting its history and heritage, and growing the local economy, because the brand works? It's not the case that across the whole of Wales local government has been a total disaster. There have been elements of good practice and there have been elements of poor practice. I think your intention—at least, I think your intention at the start of this process—is to try and make sure that it's the good practice that wins over the poor practice. We would certainly support that.
There's no explanation about how local government area 10, which I think I'll end up living in—. I trust that's a working title, it does sound a little bit like something from Nineteen Eighty-Four—very Orwellian—perhaps there's something behind this. How will that area 10 provide a more successful brand? Will it be identifiable or respected by or accepted by the people who will live in it? As Gareth Bennett said in his comments earlier, if you're talking about joining an area like Monmouthshire with Blaenau Gwent—okay, you've got the Heads of the Valleys road, which is being developed, and there might be some arguments for building on that, but it doesn't seem to me that the public, the people out there these bodies are supposed to represent, are really involved or engaged in this at all. So, if you want to come to my area at some point, I'll take you around one of the country shows, and I'm sure you'll get people's opinions very quickly.
Look, like you, I'm an optimist, Cabinet Secretary, but optimism does require a basis for that optimism and not simply a leap in the dark. I do fear that at this point in time this paper is closer to the latter than the former.
I agree with large parts of Nick Ramsay's speech, much to his horror—I actually think he's right. The interesting thing is that he describes himself as somebody from Monmouthshire and he takes ownership of that, but I'm from Monmouthshire. I was born in St James Hospital, Tredegar, Monmouthshire. I was educated in Monmouthshire as well. And the first time I saw the All Blacks play, they played Monmouthshire. You know, it is part of my identity as well as a part of your identity, Nick, and you know that and I know that. We are both from that place that we both recognise and have historical roots that go back long into history. That is why the point that you make, and the point made by Paul Davies as well, is so important about what local structures are.
My belief in where I come from and my identity, as somebody from the borderlands of Wales, from Monmouthshire, from a border county, isn't determined by the structure of local government, but is determined by who we see ourselves as being and how we define ourselves in what we do and how we live, and that isn't a matter—. No politician can take that from somebody, and no politician can create it either.
So, what we're seeking to do here is to recognise those historical bounds, those historical traditions, those histories that created all of us. You don't own Monmouthshire and neither do I. We both share that history and we both share that identity. I recognise the validity of the points that you're raising and I recognise the points that you make in terms of the structures that we've described in this Green Paper, but what I would really value from you isn't a critique of that but an alternative to it and a proposal to build upon it.
You recognise and I recognise that what we can't do today is carry on doing what we've done in the past, and that means that we do need to think hard about these matters. We need to think hard about the people who deliver our services, we need to think hard about how we hard-wire democratic accountability, and we need to think hard about the sorts of structures to which we can devolve powers, and we can devolve and empower new opportunities for local government, to see a renaissance of local government in Wales and to ensure that local government in the future doesn't just have the powers but the ability to deliver on those powers.
And finally with just a question, Mark Isherwood.
Thank you. Well, we've heard much of your general thrust, including your acknowledgement that we need devolution of powers within Wales, which is precisely what the North Wales Economic Ambition Board is calling for in its growth bid. Could I suggest that an alternative model might be the collaborative regional approach developed in north Wales by the North Wales Economic Ambition Board, working together in strategy, prioritisation and, increasingly in the future, delivery, where we know the evidence from mergers in all the sectors is that big is not always more beautiful, cost-effective or efficient?
Yes, I am happy to pursue that dialogue and that conversation. As I said, this is the beginning of a process and not the end of a process, and what we're seeking to do today is to stimulate exactly that conversation. I've spoken to all the local government leaders in north Wales, and spoken to them at length about how they work together, and I've tried to speak to them about how we deliver public services across north Wales. There are differing views across those six authorities, but there is an absolute commitment to working together, and I accept that; I don't question it. I value that and I'm grateful to them for that.
What we need to be able to ensure in regional working is that we have the building blocks in order to empower regional working, that we have the building blocks in order to deliver the strategic thinking, the strategic ability to deploy resources in order to have that maximum impact. How we do that will be different in different parts of Wales, and I hope that we can have that rich debate in north Wales about how all of our communities can feel empowered and can feel that they can hold politicians, both here and locally, to account.
The next item is the Welsh Language Standards (No. 7) Regulations 2018. I call on the Minister for Welsh Language and Lifelong Learning to move the motion. Eluned Morgan.
Motion NDM6693 Julie James
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, in accordance with Standing Order 27.5
1. Approves that the draft Welsh Language Standards (No. 7) Regulations 2018 are made in accordance with the draft laid in the Table Office on 27 February 2018.
Thank you. It’s a great pleasure to open this discussion on the Welsh Language Standards (No. 7) Regulations 2018. The regulations allow the Welsh Language Commissioner to place standards on health boards, health trusts, community health councils and the Board of Community Health Councils in Wales. These are organisations that provide crucial services to the public and are among the leading employers of Wales. These standards will build upon 'More than just words', the Welsh Government’s strategic framework for Welsh language services in health, social services and social care.
The framework introduces the principle of the active offer, that one should be offered a Welsh language service without having to request it. 'More than just words' recognises that care and language go hand in hand with the importance of ensuring the dignity and respect of Welsh speakers. It is more than complying with legal requirements and maintaining professional standards. It relates to providing quality public services that focus on the individual.
The regulations build on the firm foundations that the language schemes and 'More than just words' have created within the sector. The most important thing about the policy of creating standards and extending it to new organisations and bodies is to ensure that more bodies provide Welsh language services for their users and their staff. But there's a great deal of capacity-building work to be done, and these standards reflect that.
Everyone uses health services at some point or another, and therefore I'm pleased to be able to introduce these standards, which have the potential of improving the experiences of Welsh speakers as they access these services.
In preparing the regulations, we have been aware that some of these bodies run services 24/7 every day of the year, and I've also considered the broad range of services that they provide in a range of locations, from the commonplace to heart surgery, from emergency care to end-of-life care. Ensuring that the Welsh language is at the heart of all of these services is challenging, and there is an understanding that it won't happen overnight. If we're to succeed, the bodies will have to change the way they work, and we will ensure that the support is available to them to improve Welsh language services.
In preparing these regulations, I have listened and considered the responses received to the consultation, and I accept that the timetable for scrutiny has been tight, but I do think it's important that we make progress. A number of consultations have taken place, and I think it is now time to start this journey. Given the evidence received, I have amended some of the draft standards, and I believe that these standards assist bodies in planning and increasing their capacity to provide Welsh language services. The ultimate aim is that everyone will be able to access services in the language of their choice.
These regulations are part of the jigsaw. If we're to deliver that aim of providing more Welsh language services, it makes sense to support these regulations, which will put foundations in place for actions with other interventions in order to build the capacity required within the sector to provide services through the medium of Welsh. For example, through the Welsh Language in Business project, officials are working with businesses to increase their use of the Welsh language, and we will be running a pilot project with some GP clusters in the Hywel Dda and Aneurin Bevan areas to increase and enhance their use of the Welsh language. There will also be a toolkit developed for independent providers of primary care on how to operate bilingually.
A new pilot scheme has been launched by the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol in partnership with the universities of Cardiff and Swansea to increase the number of Welsh-speaking students who study medicine. Over 50 year-12 pupils have joined this pilot, and I saw an excellent example at Cardiff School of Medicine of a lecture being presented through the medium of Welsh to a lecture theatre full of students, most of those students listening via headphones. The National Centre for Learning Welsh is developing courses that are specifically designed for the health sector. The regulations before you are a key part of this jigsaw, which will lead to improved services in the health sector over time.
Thank you. I call on the committee Chair, Bethan Sayed.
Thank you, Dirprwy Lywydd.
These regulations are clearly a very important part of the Welsh language standards system introduced by the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011. The Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee agreed that it was important that the regulations should be scrutinised as carefully as possible, with an opportunity for stakeholders to submit written evidence and for the committee to hear oral evidence.
In the extremely limited time available, the committee was able to invite and receive a range of written evidence, and also to question some of that evidence in a public meeting of the committee. I'd like to put on record the committee’s thanks to all those who took part in our consultation and who provided oral evidence at very short notice. The committee also received a private technical briefing from Welsh Government officials in March, and I’d also like to put on record the committee’s thanks to those officials. All of the evidence we received is attached to our report or is published in the transcript of our meeting on 14 March.
Turning to the committee’s conclusions and time available for scrutiny: well, we had just 21 days on this occasion from the regulations being laid before the Assembly until this debate. While this has allowed us to carry out a very basic written consultation and to arrange some oral evidence sessions, it's only barely sufficient to properly scrutinise regulations as significant as these. For example, there were only five working days available to receive written responses, and only 10 working days between the laying of the regulations and the final date for the committee to consider them. As a result of the requirements of Standing Orders and committee briefings, the time genuinely available was even more restricted.
It doesn't appear that there's any specific reason why this debate couldn't have been held later on to allow time for more comprehensive scrutiny. Even though this could have caused some delay in terms of the preparatory work on implementing the regulations, it would have allowed our committee to consider this issue in more detail. So, the committee would be pleased if the Government could allow more time to scrutinise the regulations in future.
This could be achieved easily by making it clear in the explanatory memorandum that it will not be seeking approval in terms of regulations until a period greater than the minimum of 20 days has elapsed. Forty days would allow reasonable committee scrutiny—including by other committees with an interest—while not holding up work unduly in terms of implementation.
The committee agreed that it has taken too long to bring these regulations before the Assembly—some three years from start to finish. We agreed that there is now a pressing need to put in place robust Welsh language standards for the health service. And, we heard no evidence that standards are not needed to move Welsh language provision in the health service forward.
However, the committee did hear considerable concerns about aspects of the regulations. In many ways, the health service is the most important public service that most people will use. Perhaps the greatest concern we heard was the lack of any right to receive face-to-face clinical healthcare services in Welsh. Of course, for practical reasons, a right to receive these services cannot be absolute. But, the importance of language in diagnosis and care is very clear. Also, the right to receive a service in your language of choice should be an established principle in the public sector in Wales, even if there are occasions when practicalities temper what can be provided. The idea that this basic principle should not also apply to the health service is, in our view, unacceptable. So, we want the Government to consider bringing forward, as soon as practicable, additional regulations to establish clearer rights to receive face-to-face healthcare services in Welsh.
Primary care services are the ones most often used by the public, and the other major area of concern about the regulations is that they do not apply for the most part to primary care service providers. Again, the committee recognises the practicalities, but the absence of any standards at all for independent primary care providers is a clear weakness, in our view. We are not convinced that it is unreasonable to place duties on local health boards to pursue compliance with standards by independent primary care providers. [Interruption.] I think this a statement.
Do you want an intervention?
Yes, you can do.
I thought it was a statement. Sorry.
No, it is a debate.
It's a debate now.
It's certainly a debate now. The point I wanted to raise, and I know that the committee hasn't had much time to look at this, but there is specific provision in the Measure for that which the Chair has just outlined. It would be possible for the Government to designate, through regulations, anyone to be captured under the Measure who is in receipt of more than £400,000 of public funding. Not all, but most independent primary care providers do receive this sum, and therefore could be encapsulated under this Measure. Was there any consideration given by the committee, or by the Minister, as to why this wasn't adopted?
We did ask those who appeared before the committee about that particular idea, but we haven't had sufficient time to scrutinise that effectively. But I think that is something that we have raised, as something that could be considered.
I have a little bit of time remaining. So, it's a matter for the Government to bring forward standards that can be applied sensibly to primary care and to empower and support local health boards to help primary care service providers to comply with standards and develop services.
In fact, the Government has said that it does intend to place a small number of Welsh language duties using the primary care contract. But as has already been mentioned, there is a way to do this more widely, and it is not clear to us why the specific duties that will be placed in contracts cannot be specified in standards for local health boards, which would then create a route for complaints to the Welsh Language Commissioner and greater transparency.
Under the system that is being put in place by the Minister, as far as I can understand it, the commissioner won't be answerable to any complaints or any issues. So, the committee concluded that the Government should bring forward revised regulations with clearer standards for developing Welsh language services in the primary care sector.
Finally, and I'm sorry for running over time, a theme running through the evidence we heard was the need to improve the recruitment and relevant skills of Welsh speaking staff in the health services. We do agree that this is a concern. It is important that the Welsh Government ensures that these broader policies are pursued at pace and with ambition to help address some of the practical issues that witnesses have drawn to our attention. Thank you very much.
I have to admit that this has been a difficult decision. I must make that point. On the one hand, we have a system of rights that we’re trying to extend, and, on the other, we have a sector that isn’t ready for meaningful rights, that is, face-to-face communication and provision in the primary care sector. The standards, as they currently exist, do actually contain some unfortunate discrimination between patients that are served by a GP surgery run by the health boards and those going to independent GP surgeries. There are also issues between in-patients and out-patients.
Despite a broad-ranging consultation on the draft version of the regulations, the final version wasn’t subject to a long period of consultation, and it includes a small number of significant changes. The responses to that brief consultation weren't of the same opinion either. Generally speaking, the standards as they currently stand are clear and can be applied in various different areas of Wales, but we cannot ignore the inherent inconsistencies forever.
We have to consider why these weaknesses have appeared in the regulations, and in the past I have said in this Assembly that challenging standards can push stubborn councils to take steps, for example. And, for large parts of the health service, I would say the same thing. They’ve known that standards were in the pipeline since 2010, and they should have been making preparations for them. Certainly, most of these standards as they currently exist could have been foreseen, and that’s why I would like to proceed with these standards now.
We can consider why some of the standards haven’t been included, when, from the point of view of rights, they should have been. Now, what I would ask is: why is it difficult to recruit practitioners of sufficient quality? Why is that more difficult than recruiting staff to councils? Because that’s what’s been happening, unfortunately. With so few key relevant practitioners able to speak Welsh in Wales, the right to a consultation through the medium of Welsh at the moment is something that cannot be enforced, and therefore it shouldn’t be worded as an inherent right. Unlike local authorities, the cohort of doctors and trainee doctors come from all parts of the world, and I don't see this as a question of the health service ignoring the inherent skills of the workforce; it’s a question of ensuring a workforce at all, whatever language they speak.
But we won’t accept this rationale forever. Minister, we will be supporting these regulations today because something needs to be done after so long, and there are over 100 standards that could be applied at once. But we will hold you to standard 110, and we will expect this to be a step towards any new set of standards in the future—the next part of the jigsaw, as you mentioned. We recognise that, although recruitment is still a problem, it's possible securing rights to face-to-face consultations across all disciplines will still be difficult, but we will expect them to be introduced in key areas such as dementia, mental health, children’s services and autism services at least as a result of standard 110, and, if possible, it should be done before the five years is up.
So, that’s why I was content to sign up to the committee’s report, because I am of the view that it’s possible to do something before the end of that five years, and that is to do something as soon as is reasonably practicable. We don’t have to wait for five years if there is a chance to do something sooner. Thank you.
It’s disappointing that the Government is determined to continue with the vote on these important standards that are to be set with regard to the Welsh language in the area of health, namely the Welsh Language Standards (No. 7) Regulations 2018. Plaid Cymru believes that this decision should be postponed to give the Government an opportunity to add to the standards that are before us today. The cross-party Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee has said that the Government should consider giving more time to the committee to have more of an opportunity to scrutinise these standards.
The committee has also come to the conclusion that additional standards should be put forward. As things stand, the standards are entirely insufficient and deficient. As there will be a vote today, we in the Plaid Cymru ranks have no choice but to vote against these weak standards. The standards that are before us don't set any standard that acknowledges the need for face-to-face services through the medium of Welsh in our hospitals, nor do they set standards for the vast majority of primary care providers, which are the main link between citizens and the world of health.
Having that face-to-face contact in your mother tongue to discuss aspects of your healthcare is vital for the quality of that service, especially if you are a young child who hasn't yet acquired the English language, or if you suffer issues with memory such as dementia that mean that it's only in your mother tongue that you can communicate, or if you suffer from mental ill health and want to deal with emotions in a meaningful way. The quality of the care, and, in some cases, the safety of the patient, are compromised if there are communication issues. That need is acknowledged very clearly in the innovative Welsh Government strategy 'More than just words', but, unfortunately, the spirit of that strategy isn't reflected in these weak standards that are before us today.
If we can pause for a moment to consider what exactly standards are, the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011 enables Welsh Ministers to set standards, which is a way of setting standards of behaviour with regard to the Welsh language. In the case of the health sector, there are 114 standards set, mainly relating to correspondence, phone calls, staff meetings, signs, job interviews, policy making and so on. But there is no expectation for a health body to jump straight into achieving that overnight. There's a process where the Welsh Language Commissioner will be putting forward a compliance notice on the body in question, but, and this is an important 'but', there's no compulsion on the commissioner to make it a requirement for every body to comply with every standard. Rather, this is a list—it's a menu, if you will—and if it's clear that it is entirely impractical for a body to operate in accordance with any of the standards then that specific standard doesn't have to be in the compliance notice, nor does the standard have to be implemented immediately. There is a great deal of flexibility in the system that would allow the commissioner to set a future implementation date.
What's forgotten as part of this discussion is the voice of the patient. Very rarely is there mention of the rights of patients in hospitals. There's one standard amongst all of the others talking about the need to record a desire to speak Welsh, but, after that, it doesn't mention what to do with that information. Then there's another standard about publishing five-year plans about the steps that are intended to be taken to improve the ability to undertake a clinical consultation in the Welsh language, but, again, there is no specific standard that sets out the right to a Welsh language service, and so even that five-year standard becomes meaningless, because that standard isn't defined clearly as part of these regulations. There's no reference at all to setting standards in the independent primary care sector, which is a clear weakness.
My argument is that these standards should set out rights to a face-to-face service through the medium of Welsh—clear rights. Of course, there are great challenges, we all know that, but there is change afoot as more nurses and doctors receive training through the medium of Welsh. We need to respond creatively to the challenges that face the health service. There is a way to add to these standards without causing major problems, and Plaid Cymru, in Government, would leave no stone unturned to find those creative solutions, and Plaid Cymru, in Government, would have the robust political will to demand that the needs of Welsh speakers are met fully.
It's easy to see these regulations—wrongly—as part of a policy on culture; it's actually a health measure that we're talking about today, and we will be supporting the regulations on the basis that half a loaf is better than no bread. I heard the eloquent plea by Siân Gwenllian today to go further, and I very much sympathise with it. It won't please them to know it, but Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg have produced some written evidence with which I very largely agree. They say that they recommend a specific stance should be added confirming the rights of both in-patients and out-patients to receive clinical consultation, treatment and care through the medium of Welsh, and Siân Gwenllian has explained why this is very necessary for the very young, for perhaps the very old, and perhaps the not so old, who unfortunately suffer from dementia or related conditions, where the ability to attend a consultation through the language in which you can best express yourself is going to be the language through which you may best be diagnosed and therefore treated. That's a vitally important issue, which needs to be properly recognised.
I fully understand the reasons why the Minister has not felt able to go so far, but I do think that Siân Gwenllian made a good point when she referred to the degree of flexibility that exists within the scheme that has been set up by the 2011 Measure. I do believe that there should be an aim set in legislation for the right to receive face-to-face treatment or diagnosis through the language of your choice, and the explanatory memorandum to these regulations does explain why this would not necessarily come into conflict with the obvious practical difficulties that we have, not having enough professionals able to deal with patients through the medium of Welsh. The evidence that we've seen from the British Medical Association is also an interesting point to add to that: we mustn't have the Welsh language being perceived outside Wales as an impediment to the recruitment of professionals within Wales, and I do believe that that is an important point, which we must always bear in mind. But the explanatory memorandum to these regulations explains, I think, quite clearly, that the scheme that the commissioner is obliged to implement gives her—'her' at the moment, at any rate—the power to be flexible, as Siân Gwenllian said. The commissioner may
'require a body to comply with one standard in some circumstances and another standard in other circumstances',
'the Commissioner may require the body to comply with the standard in some circumstances but not others, or require it to comply with the standard only in some areas.'
Similarly, where there are two or more standards relating to a specific conduct,
'the Commissioner may...require a body to comply with one of those standards only, or with different standards at different times, in different circumstances, or in different areas'.
I think that's a fully comprehensive possibility of introducing flexibility into the scheme. So, I do hope that although we'll support these regulations today—and I know for a fact that the Minister would like to go further and is only inhibited by what she sees as practical difficulties at the current time—that, within a relatively short time, we will be able to go further towards the realisation of this objective. Because I do believe that it's important for people to have the assurance that they can use the health service in a way that is best for them. It is a national health service, and that includes, obviously, Welsh speakers—and, indeed, Welsh monoglot speakers, for that matter—as well as everybody else, and so I think it's important for reasons of inclusivity. It's important for reasons, as we all know, of achieving by the year 2050, if we can, a million Welsh speakers, but it's more important, I think, that we see this as a measure that is going to provide the best possible health service for everybody in our country.
Well, I rather agree with Neil Hamilton on this, in that it's really important that, whatever measures we're introducing, we cannot afford to give the impression that only those who speak Welsh can be working in the Welsh NHS, because that would be a very dangerous path to travel. I welcome the measure; a long time in gestation, but now we need to give birth to this baby. Therefore, I will be voting in favour of the measure. We have to recognise that—. I absolutely agree with Siân Gwenllian that, in some cases, it isn't just a quality issue; it can be a safety issue. If a child is a Welsh speaker and needs to express how they're feeling about the pain or where it is, the quality of the consultation is going to be reliant on being able to understand what that child has to say. So, this is a really important issue in areas where children are being brought up as Welsh speakers. That also applies in relation to where we're discussing mental health issues or dementia is involved, where people may revert to being monoglot as a result of their dementia.
Caution is required in the speed with which we introduce this measure, simply because many of the services, certainly in my area of Cardiff and Vale, are dependent not just on attracting people from other parts of Britain, but on attracting European clinicians for whom we have to make sure that they speak sufficiently good English, never mind Welsh, and it's extremely unlikely they're going to speak Welsh if they're coming from other countries. So, I absolutely support the right and the duty on us to make progress on ensuring that services offer people the choice between Welsh and English, but as with the movement to enable women to see women clinicians, particularly on women's health issues, where somebody's life is at risk, we're clearly not going to be proposing that somebody cannot see a doctor because a woman doctor isn't available. In emergency circumstances, we clearly have to go with the clinician that's in front of them.
So, I support this measure, but I think we need to go cautiously in order not to artificially discourage people from coming to work in the Welsh NHS when, at the moment, we are having considerable difficulty filling vacancies for people who speak either language, never mind both languages.
I call on the Minister to reply to the debate.
Thank you very much, and thank you, first of all, to the committee for the report. I am highly aware that you didn't have a great deal of time to look at this, but we have complied with the 21 days that is usually in place. However, I do accept that perhaps we can look at expanding that, if that's created a problem on this occasion. But that's the way it's always been done. But as a point of principle, I do think that we can extend the time in future.
The Chair of the committee was right in saying that it has taken a long period of time. There was a consultation that went on for a lengthy period of time. It is quite a sophisticated and broad-ranging service, and I was eager to ensure that we did get responses from all sorts of levels within the health sector. But that is why we are eager now to make progress today.
Now, this issue of the face-to-face clinical consultation is a difficult one, partly because of the practical problems. Once you establish rights, at what point do you say, 'Well, actually, you have to have this given treatment or consultation at this particular point'? You don't necessarily want to stop that process of assisting the patient through the system. So, we have to strike that balance correctly, and that's why we have said that we want to start the health boards on this journey of ensuring that, ultimately, they will need to provide services and to move towards providing clinical services to their patients. That is why we've introduced this idea of five-year plans, and that's why they have to demonstrate to us how they're going to respond and that they can change in terms of what they want to do in any given area. So, what might be right for parts of Gwynedd might be very different to what might be required in another part of Betsi Cadwaladr. So, they will have that flexibility to respond to local need.
In terms of primary care—
Will you take an intervention?