Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd

Plenary - Fifth Senedd

13/11/2018

The Assembly met at 13:30 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.

1. Questions to the First Minister

The first item on our agenda this afternoon is questions to the First Minister. And the first question is from Mike Hedges. 

Teacher Pension Contributions

1. Will the First Minister make a statement on funding the increase in teacher pension contributions? OAQ52895

I share the concerns of others in the public sector that the proposed changes to public sector pension schemes risk diverting further funding from front-line services. The UK Government is responsible for these changes and we have made it clear that they must fund the increase in pension contributions.

Can I thank the First Minister for that answer? The cost of funding the increase in the employer teacher pension contributions follows the decision of Westminster to implement cost capping, and this will fall mainly on school budgets. Unless money comes from Westminster—and there may be money from Westminster—will the First Minister commit that any money that comes as a consequential of the additional money for schools in England to cover the pensions will actually be given to schools in Wales?

Well, we have already made it clear that local authorities are first in the queue, although there is a queue in terms of funding, but that depends on whether we do get consequentials. What is not fair, nor is it right, is a situation to arise where the UK Government imposes extra costs on local authorities that the Welsh Government is then expected to fund. That clearly can't be right. So, where costs are imposed by Government, we have an agreement with local authorities where we say that any new costs will be funded. The UK Government needs to do the same. 

Well, of course, local authorities complain all the time that they're asked to make spending decisions based on decisions made here that aren't followed up by money. And if the Welsh Local Government Association is right on this one, we'll have far fewer teachers building up pensions rights anyway as a result of the cash cuts to both local government and the education budgets in the recent budget announcement.

Last week, we heard from the leader of Bridgend council about the cuts he was planning on making to services following the Welsh Government draft budget, and this week we have Swansea council's leader—both of these Labour, of course—saying that he's going to be making cuts to his schools budget due to the settlement from Welsh Government. The Chancellor's budget allocates three years' worth of funding. So, in your final weeks as First Minister, will you use some of that additional money to give local authority leaders in Wales the money they need to fund schools and staff?

The Chancellor's funding decision does not give us three years of funding, nor is it anything like the figure that he suggested of £555 million. In fact, we estimate it's around about £50 million or £60 million of revenue in this year, and £2.6 million in capital. So, a great deal of spin has gone into that announcement. What I can say is, having spoken to the leader of Bridgend, and spoken to the leader of Swansea, is, yes, they face difficult decisions and we're looking to help them, but they are absolutely clear that those decisions they face are as a result of the austerity imposed by a Tory Government in London. 

It’s clear that the uncertainty around these pension payments is creating great problems at a grass-roots level, and it’s not clear at all what the mechanism will be for providing the additional funding. What discussions are you having, therefore, with the Treasury, with your Members of Parliament in Westminster and, indeed, with the teaching unions about this problem?

We, along with Scotland, have written to call for changes in teachers’ pensions, and that should be funded from the UK Government. It’s they who have created this situation, and the same is true in Scotland, as I understand it, and so we have written jointly to say, ‘You have insisted on imposing this additional cost on local authorities, therefore you should fund it’.

Second Homes

2. Will the First Minister make a statement on the impact of registering second homes as business properties on council tax receipts? OAQ52931

It is the responsibility of the Valuation Office Agency, independently of the Welsh Government, to determine whether each property in Wales is liable for council tax or for non-domestic rates, and these decisions are made according to criteria set out in law.

The impact of the second-homes market and holiday homes is well known, in terms of young people’s ability to get on the property ladder locally. It pushes prices up and pushes people out of the housing market. We know the gravity of the problem—36 homes sold in Anglesey in 2017-18 were second homes or buy-to-lets. The figures are even higher in Gwynedd, and that’s very concerning indeed. I’m very supportive of measures such as charging more council tax on second homes as a way of making people think twice or to bring more funds into local authority coffers. But there is a pattern emerging now, where more and more people, rather than paying council tax on their homes, are registering them as business properties so that they would then have to pay business rates. But, as small businesses, they receive full business rate relief, and that is expensive for local authorities. Does the First Minister agree with me that this is a loophole that needs to be closed, and what is the Government considering doing in order to close that loophole?

13:35

I don’t think there’s a loophole, but the law is very clear—it’s stronger than in England. It is a matter, of course, for the Valuation Office Agency, but if somebody wants to change their status, where they change from paying the council tax to paying business non-domestic rates, they have to show evidence that that is correct. They can’t just state that; they have to provide evidence. If that evidence is weak, or the evidence isn’t sufficient, the Valuation Office Agency can reconsider what they’ve done, and then, of course, they can give them a bill that could go back years regarding paying the council tax. So, ensuring that the law is considered is the point here, and I think the law is clear enough, but it's up to the Valuation Office Agency to police the situation.

Well, you refer to the criteria that the Valuation Office Agency must adjudicate, where, in Wales, property is judged to be a business property and not liable for business rates if it's available for letting commercially as self-catering accommodation for 140 or more days in the following 12 months, has been in the previous 12 months, and has actually been commercially let for at least 70 days during that period. What assurance can you therefore provide the many providers, from Flintshire to Anglesey, who have contacted me, who run legitimate self-catering business, many of whom are farms that have diversified, that their genuine and legitimate businesses will not be compromised by any changes that might come?

Well, genuine businesses need not fear, of course. What I can say is that the Cabinet Secretary for Finance is evaluating the impact of the introduction of council tax premiums. That does include a survey of local authorities, to assess how many properties have switched from council tax to non-domestic rates. Once that survey is complete, we can then see what the scale of the problem is, and whether there is a need to do more to ensure that people pay properly, according to the status of the property that they own.

Will the Welsh Government legislate to ensure that all properties built or adapted for housing have to pay council tax based upon the band they're in and any second home premium charged by the local authority, or that the business rate relief for rented out properties is abolished? Because I think this is a loophole: it has to be available for 140 days; it is quite easy to make something available for 140 days, and get round it. It has to be let out for 70 days, whether renting out to family counts, which a lot of people do, in that you collect more rent, but they let family members use it, and therefore that builds up to the 70 days. So, will the Government look at taking either of those two actions, to ensure that local authorities get the money they deserve?

We've legislated to allow local authorities to charge council tax premiums on second homes. As I said in the answer earlier, it's the responsibility of the Valuation Office Agency—independently of the Government—to determine the status of each property in Wales. As I said, those second home owners who try to game the system could find themselves facing very large backdated bills for council tax. But, again, I refer to the answer I gave earlier, where a review is being conducted, to examine the scale of the problem in different parts of Wales.

Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders

Questions now from the party leaders. The leader of the opposition, Paul Davies.

Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, why does your Government spend £678 less per pupil than in England?

That's a figure that's simply wrong. If he wishes to provide me with evidence for that figure, I'm willing to hear it.

First Minister, these are figures from the Welsh branch of the NASUWT union, and this is despite having a funding settlement that allows £120 to be spent per person in Wales for every £100 spent in England. But it's not just your decision to underfund schools that has led to a decline in standards, it is the failure of your Government to set a clear direction for education here in Wales. Let's take the Programme for International Student Assessment targets, for example—a clear measure of managed decline in school standards. In 2011, your colleague, and the then education Minister, Leighton Andrews—Leighton Andrews: remember him? Yes; perhaps you don't want to remember him—set the ambitious target that, by 2015, Wales would be ranked in the top 20 countries for PISA results. The reality, First Minister, is that we are currently ranking thirty-ninth out of 71, and now there's no target at all. There is no ambition, no drive and no desire at the heart of your administration to develop an internationally competitive education system, which speaks volumes from a tired and unambitious Welsh Labour Government. So, do you agree with your previous colleague Leighton Andrews that Wales's education system continues to be complacent, falling short of being consistently good and not delivering the outcomes that our learners deserve? Would you agree that Wales's education system is currently in a weaker place now than when you became First Minister?

13:40

Not at all. The reality is, of course, that to say that somehow the system is indifferent or that the system is in managed decline is a serious attack on our teachers who work very, very hard, day in, day out, to educate our children. The reality is that it is impossible to compare school funding between England and Wales. In England, they fund schools directly; in Wales, it doesn't happen. We give the money to local authorities and they are responsible for school funding.

He says that somehow there's a decline. Well, let me just give him some figures here: we have improved performance at the highest grades—A* to A from 17 per cent to 18 per cent in GCSEs; we see a 50 per cent increase in pupils studying science, with more getting A* to C and getting top grades for biology, chemistry and physics; we see, of course, A-level pass rates improving; we see, for example, 63 per cent of 16-year-olds getting A* to C at English language; we see mathematics numeracy is up at 60 per cent; we see improvements year after year in GCSE performance; and we see improvements year after year in A-level performance.

Our heads are not marching in the streets saying that their schools are underfunded, unlike the situation that exists under his party in England. I suggest to him, 'Go and see'. I was in his constituency a few weeks ago on a political visit—go and see the new schools that have been built or promised around Wales, and go and see how many are being built or promised in England. We want to make sure that our youngsters carry on with being able to have the facilities they require to learn, to have the support from Government that they need to learn, to have the finance from Government that they need to learn, rather than having the situation in England, where they teach young people and children in crumbling buildings while the heads are marching on the streets.

First Minister, you said yourself that you took your eye off the ball on education. Clearly, your party has been asleep at the wheel for the last decade. And let me give you some figures: under your party's stewardship, we've seen the worst GCSE results in a decade; the lowest ranking PISA scores in the UK, with educational attainment ranking behind countries like Vietnam and Slovakia; an 8 per cent real-terms cut to funding for education, with schools braced to experience more cuts; and the leader of your own council in your own constituency has warned that the £57 million funding gap in education created by your Government could see the loss of 1,300 teachers or 2,400 teaching assistants across Wales.

It's completely unacceptable that our pupils' and Wales's future are shouldering the burden of your Government's incompetence in this area. Our children are worth more than what you give them, First Minister. When you took office in 2009, was this the type of reform you set out to achieve? And, are you proud of your record on education?

Yes and yes. But let me say two things to him: his party went into the 2011 Assembly election with a vow to cut education spending by 20 per cent—20 per cent. His own leader at the time, Nick Bourne, said it—[Interruption.]—I know you don't like it, but he said it live on a BBC Wales interview. We saw the alternative budget that his party provided, and if he has any complaint, then surely it's the fact that we haven't cut education spending enough as far as he is concerned.

Secondly, I've no doubt that we will sit here over the course of the next half an hour or so, and, indeed, in the weeks to come, while he will demand that we spend more money on everything—health, education, local government, everything—and we would like to do that. We would like to do that, but the reality is we have £4 billion less as a result of his party's policies than otherwise we would have if spending had kept up with economic development. He cannot have it both ways; he can't stand up here every week and demand money for each and every part of the Government every single week without being responsible and saying where that money is coming from. He won't do that because that's just too difficult.

13:45

Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, are you content that the RAF are training Saudi Arabian pilots at RAF Valley on Ynys Môn, teaching the techniques that can be used in the conflict in Yemen?

These are matters, of course, that are not devolved, but I certainly join with him in wishing to see a peaceful solution to the conflict in Yemen. The current situation is unsustainable—innocent lives are being lost—and I know the UK Government's position is also that a peace settlement needs to be reached, and soon.

You say that it's a non-devolved matter, but are ethics non-devolved? Is morality non-devolved? Where does it say in the Government of Wales Act 2006 that matters of conscience are reserved to Westminster? Thousands of people have died in the Yemeni conflict, many of them civilians, and among them children. The leader of the Labour Party has called upon the UK Government to end arms exports to Saudi Arabia, which, as he has pointed out, stands accused of war crimes by the United Nations.

Now, on Sunday, at a solemn ceremony at the Cenotaph to commemorate the victims of war, you and I both pledged, and I quote, 'To strive for all that makes peace.' So, in honour of that pledge, are you prepared to promise that no Welsh Government money will go to a company that is directly supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia while this bloody conflict continues?

I am not aware of any company that's received money in that sense. We certainly haven't had contracts with the Saudi Government, and we share the UK Government's concern, not just in terms of what's happened in Yemen, but of course the well-publicised murder of the journalist, Khashoggi, in Turkey. There are questions for Saudi Arabia to answer, and I agree with him that we should be very careful indeed, as things stand at the moment, with those two situations in terms of the way in which we engage with the Saudi Government.

Well, I can tell the First Minister that the Welsh Government has given over £1 million to the US defence firm Raytheon. According to CNN, Raytheon's weapons have been used in the targeted bombing of civilians in Yemen. Information from the US Department of Defense confirms that Raytheon's Welsh operations are directly and substantially involved in delivering hundreds more air-to-ground missiles to the Saudi Arabian military. That $300 million deal, incidentally, was signed a week after the chief executive officer of Raytheon flew to Riyadh to lobby Mohammed bin Salman on whose instruction Jamal Khashoggi, whom the First Minister just referred to, was reportedly murdered. So, can I ask you, First Minister, to honour your pledge and commit that not a single penny more of public money from Wales will go to a company involved in the supply of weapons to this murderous and barbaric regime?

Well, the leader of Plaid Cymru has raised an important issue there in terms of Raytheon. It's not clear what the involvement of the Raytheon plant in Deeside is with regard to Saudi Arabia. I will, however, find out, and I will write to him once I've established what the connection is. Upon seeing the results of that investigation, I will then of course respond fully to the points that he's raised.

Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, one of the early policies enacted by the Welsh Government was to introduce a new educational qualification, the Welsh baccalaureate, or 'Welsh bac', as it is known. The Welsh bac has come under criticism, so do you still believe it has been a worthwhile addition to the national curriculum in Wales?

Yes, I thought you would probably endorse it, so thank you for the answer. I have to say that you didn't tell us why you think that, but perhaps that will become—[Interruption.] I didn't ask. That may perhaps become clearer as we progress. I have to say—[Interruption.] I have to say, the majority of students doing the A-level version of the Welsh bac probably don't agree with your assessment of it—not as far as I can see. One of the issues is that A-level students trying to get into the UK's top universities have enough on their plate as it is with three A-levels to cope with. Then, your Government goes and handicaps them in Wales by forcing them to study an extra subject, the Welsh bac, which most of the top UK universities don't even recognise, and which doesn't count towards their grades for getting onto the top courses. Would you accept that your—[Interruption.] Would you accept that your Welsh bac is simply making life more difficult for Welsh A-level students?

13:50

This is not American politics. We like to see questions that are asked on the basis of evidence—any evidence, actually. He said that most A-level students probably wouldn't agree with me. He offers no evidence for that. He suggests that most universities see the Welsh bac as some kind of imposition or don't recognise it. There's no evidence for that at all. He believes that the Welsh bac itself is somehow handicapping our students. There's no evidence for that at all. Because what I can tell him is—I have a child, he's 16 years old, he's studying GCSEs this year, and the Welsh bac is immensely useful, because it teaches students how to operate in life and in work beyond academic subjects. They'll research topics and find out about areas like community work, they look at entrepreneurship—all the things that aren't taught in traditional subjects. So, I think what the bac does is prepare our young people in the broadest way possible not just for academic qualifications, but for the world of work. I know that many employers that I've spoken to—so that I'm not accused of making things up—have said to me that they find that those who've gone through the Welsh bac and have that qualification are better prepared to start in the world of work.

Yes, you say it prepares them better, but it also hinders them from getting onto the top courses. Now, you wanted—[Interruption.] You wanted evidence, so listen to some evidence. We know from freedom of information requests that in 2017 Oxford and Cambridge universities made 153 conditional offers to Welsh-domiciled students, none of which included the Welsh bac. Imperial College London said that it is not standard practice to make offers that include the Welsh bac. Indeed, out of 19 Russell Group universities, 14 of them made more conditional offers that did not include the Welsh bac to Welsh-based students than those that did. Therefore, would you agree that, based on the evidence before us, the Welsh bac does nothing to help Welsh students into top universities and everything, in fact, to hinder them? And would you agree with me that your Government should now seriously consider abolishing the Welsh bac altogether?

No. He doesn't like it because it's Welsh. Let's be honest. He doesn't like anything Welsh, that's the reason why he doesn't like the Welsh bac.

Again, he offers no evidence. All he says is that some universities—and Cambridge is supportive of the Welsh bac; we know that, they've said it—are making offers where they rely on traditional A-level grades. They're not saying the Welsh bac is a handicap. And the Welsh bac is not just a qualification in academic terms. It is a qualification that prepares, as I've said, young people for the world of work. Universities are interested in academic grades, employers are interested in academic grades, yes, but also the readiness and preparedness of a young person to enter the world of work. It's something now that of course is being copied in England. I suppose if it's adopted there he'll be all in favour of the Welsh bac at that point, as long as it's called something else, that's not Welsh. 

No, I think we have done well in preparing our young people for the future. We have grafted the Welsh bac onto the traditional curriculum, and I can say from my own personal experience looking at it with my son, it does an immense amount of good in broadening the horizons of so many youngsters, which they need in order to make themselves even more employable in the future. 

Health Inequalities in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney

3. Will the First Minister provide an update on Welsh Government action to tackle health inequalities in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney? OAQ52928

It is a central ambition of the Government that everyone in Wales has a fair opportunity to live a healthy life, irrespective of their background or where they live. We continue to tackle the root causes of health inequalities through national and local action, and across Government.

Thank you for that answer, First Minister. In spite of the significant investment in health services in my constituency, we can see that there still remains an alarming health trend amongst the local population. You'll be aware that in 2016 the annual report of the Chief Medical Officer for Wales highlighted the social inequities that affect areas like Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney. Now, clearly adequate funding of local health and care services in order to overcome these inequalities must remain as the core of the Welsh Government's work in the years ahead, but given that these inequalities stubbornly persist, what more can the Welsh Government do to ensure that income and social class do not continue to be barriers to good health?

Tackling social inequality is a cross-Government priority, as demonstrated by the fact it's a central ambition of 'Prosperity for All'. To give examples of Government programmes that are tackling the root cause of health inequalities, they include employment programmes, quality housing and access to childcare. They're combined with programmes to address healthy behaviour and improved access to healthcare, because we know that will reduce barriers to good health as well. And, of course, the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 provides new impetus in tackling the persistent underlying causes of health inequalities through working differently with partners, intervening earlier and promoting better integration between services.

13:55

First Minister, Merthyr Tydfil has the highest level of childhood obesity in Wales. Seventeen and a half per cent of children in Merthyr Tydfil are obese, more than double the figure of the Vale of Glamorgan. In the view of the fact that diabetes is the fastest growing health crisis in Wales, what action is the Welsh Government taking to target areas of high childhood obesity, such as Merthyr Tydfil, to reduce future pressures on the NHS in Wales, please? 

Well, there's consistent evidence to suggest that an investment in the early years significantly improves health, social and economic outcomes. So, our Healthy Child Wales programme has been developed with a standard universal NHS offer for all families with children aged nought to seven. That offers a consistent range of preventative and early intervention measures and, importantly, guidance to support parenting and healthy lifestyle choices. It also identifies families in need of additional support. So, that's one example, that programme, of what we are doing in order to ensure that the issue of obesity is tackled early on in a child's life, before difficult habits start to form.

The Housing Revenue Account

4. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the effect of lifting the housing revenue account borrowing cap? OAQ52932

Lifting the housing revenue account borrowing cap is significant. It's welcome in Wales. It's a u-turn, but, nevertheless, we do welcome what has been done. It will help local authorities to deliver on their council house building strategies. And we're working closely with those authorities to fully understand the benefits.  

I also welcome the fact that this cap has been lifted. It will also allow local authorities to work effectively with other organisations, especially housing associations. I note the interesting partnership model that exists in Warrington council, where they have increased the total loans to housing associations by hundreds of millions of pounds. That sort of imagination we could see in Wales, with potential for local authorities to commission housing association development teams or to partner on modern methods of construction to achieve the scale that we need in this regard. And, as you, I think, also referred to, the 20,000 home target that we have in this Assembly term for social homes is another key area. But we need to go way beyond and ensure the new borrowing powers are used very, very effectively. 

Yes, that's true. One thing I can say is that the Minister has commissioned an independent review of the affordable housing supply. That's looking at a range of policies and processes to ensure we maximise the number of homes we get from our considerable investment. And, of course, the lifting of the borrowing cap will form part of the panel's consideration, and we expect recommendations from that panel in April of next year.

The Shared Prosperity Fund

5. Will the First Minister provide an update on discussions with the UK Government regarding the shared prosperity fund? OAQ52934

I think it's fair to say that it's fairly vague at the moment, and fairly incoherent in terms of how it might operate or how much money might be available. I raised it, certainly, last week with David Lidington. It's not clear how it would work, how much money would be available and, of course, how it would work in terms of meshing with the devolved settlement. We simply have to wait and see.

I thank the First Minister for that response, and I'm aware that there have been pre-consultation meetings taking place in Wales, and the most recent one, I think, was last Friday, with representatives of the third sector. So, I don't know if the First Minister has got any feedback from those meetings, but doesn't he agree that it is absolutely crucial that the future of regional policy lies in the hands of the Welsh Government, and that the focus should be on tackling inequality as a means of improving prosperity and productivity?

Absolutely, because that is a devolved responsibility. It would be wholly inappropriate for a shared prosperity fund to be administered entirely from Whitehall, bypassing the Government and the Assembly completely. That would cut across what the UK Government has said about devolved responsibilities in a very serious way.

There was indeed a stakeholder event in Cardiff that took place on Thursday and Friday last week regarding the shared prosperity fund. In fairness, our officials were invited the day before. So, we didn't get much notice of that event taking place, but it does give you an example of the incoherent approach that's being taken where the Wales Office arranges something, doesn't tell anybody, appears to cut across devolved responsibility even though it has no powers of its own, and then all that does is confuse businesses. Well, I think it would be far better if the UK Government were clearer and followed the approach that we've suggested, where in effect you have a fund that closely mirrors the operation of the current European funds, and, of course, with maximum—a common set of rules, of course, but maximum flexibility for the devolved Governments. 

14:00

First Minister, the Member for Cardiff North makes a very good point when she says that future regional policy should be controlled by the Welsh Government, by this Assembly—a point that you've echoed yourself. Whilst I appreciate that there are still details, a large number of details, about the shared prosperity fund to be effectively ironed out, it's important that when the current European funding ends and the shared prosperity fund, whatever final form that takes, kicks in—it's important at that point that the Welsh Government is best placed to access that funding. What are you doing to make sure that Welsh Government departments across portfolios are fit for purpose and are ready to be at the front of the queue to access that shared prosperity funding as soon as we do leave the EU? Because it's important that there isn't a gap in funding.

Well, the structure is there, of course. We've had years of dealing with European funds. The Wales European Funding Office and other departments are well used to dealing with this kind of funding structure. The shared prosperity fund is not of itself a bad idea. It's how much money will be available and how it is administered that we are troubled by. It's hugely important, as the Member himself, in fairness, has said, that this in effect replaces European funds in terms of the actual quantum available but that the responsibilities and rights of this Chamber and the Government are protected as the shared prosperity fund is developed. We'd prefer to be part of that conversation to make sure that the fund operates not just as far as Wales is concerned but works properly across the whole of the UK.

Of course, we still have questions about the existing arrangements before moving to the so-called shared prosperity fund. The First Minister will be aware of the audit office report on the impact of a 'no deal' separation on structural and regional funding as they stand. At the time of the report's publication in August, it noted that WEFO had exceeded its spending targets in three out of four of its operational programmes and underspent in one, which was west Wales and the Valleys. In the first instance, is the First Minister able to reassure us that overspends will be covered by the UK Government in the event of a 'no deal' separation, and can he update the Assembly further on whether all spending targets in all operational programmes are now being met or exceeded?

It's very unusual for spending programmes to spend 100 per cent of the money in any financial year, because some projects are kept over to the other financial year. I can't offer him comfort in terms of how overspends might be dealt with; the UK Government have given us no comfort on that or any other issue regarding European funding post 2022. There's no doubt that a 'no deal' Brexit would be hugely costly. We can try to mitigate against it but the reality is we can't prevent the economic disaster that would occur if there was a 'no deal' Brexit, which is why I hope that there is a satisfactory deal on the table. We wait to see. I hope that those who at the moment see a 'no deal' Brexit as no problem will come to their senses when that deal is considered in the UK Parliament. 

The Future of Welsh Towns

6. What assessment has the First Minister made of the recommendations contained in the Federation of Small Businesses report on the future of Welsh towns? OAQ52901

I think the work they've done is very useful and it's a very useful addition to our existing knowledge in this area. We will, of course, consider the recommendations carefully in light of our current initiatives to support town centres.

Thank you, First Minister. I agree with you: I think the work they've commissioned gives a solid evidence base, which is the kind of deep work that can of course lead to positive changes in Government policy and action. Let's remember that over 1 million people live in Wales's towns. We hear lots about city deals, but how do you feel a potential mid Wales growth deal can empower those who live in the towns of mid Wales to identify and promote their towns? The report that was commissioned also talks about ideas coming from the grass roots upwards. So, how do you believe that a potential mid Wales growth deal can support that aim?

I think that's important. If we look at the bids process of business improvement districts, they have been led by businesses in respective towns. Any growth deal must be targeted specifically to the needs and requirements of the area in which that growth deal is based. So, certainly, as a growth deal is developed, it's hugely important to have the maximum amount of engagement with retail businesses in town centres and all those in the rural economy.

14:05

First Minister, you'll be aware that the report shows clearly—and, of course, we already knew this—that empty shops detract from the overall performance of town centres and deter new businesses from locating themselves there. You will probably know that the Plaid Cymru-led Carmarthenshire County Council has made a big investment in Llanelli, buying shops, breaking them into smaller units that people can then afford to rent, and turning the upper levels of the shops into residential properties that also bring people in to live in the town centre. What further support can the Welsh Government provide to local authorities to enable them to continue to respond creatively to the crisis that is faced by many of our town centres?

I think we have to accept that we are not likely to see the same number of retail units in towns in the future. If I look at my own home town of Bridgend, there are many, many units that are empty and will probably never be filled. Some of them have been empty for many, many years. So, what then should happen? Well, a lot of them may be turned into residential units, to ensure there's a better mix in town centres. In my home town, it's been happening for 30 years or more. 

How do we then create more vibrant towns that are mixed in terms of their provision—some of it residential, some of it business, some of it will be retail, some of it will be restaurants, bars—to create that buzz in the town, not just in the day but in the evening as well? I think also it's important that consideration is given to when shops open in town centres, because, of course, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. doesn't suit most people any more, and, unless you have a very big footfall in a town centre because there are offices there, then you will lose out.

But, in terms of what the Government is doing, we have our targeted regeneration investment programme. That means capital funding of £100 million across Wales over three years to support regionally prioritised regeneration projects in town centres. We have the European-funded Building for the Future programme, which is providing £54 million to acquire, refurbish or redevelop unused buildings and land within or close to town or city centres across west Wales and the Valleys. And, of course, our town centre loan scheme has provided £27.5 million since 2014 to bring empty, underused sites and premises in town centres back into use. 

First Minister, when I speak to residents up and down the Cynon Valley, there's great passion about wanting to see our town centres rejuvenated. But, at the same time, that's often set against a reluctance by local people to actually shop locally. And when I speak to them about the reasons for that, one of the things that's most often cited is the lack of diversity of businesses on our high streets. Now, clearly, that's quite a difficult interface between the public and private sectors, but what is the Welsh Government doing to try and encourage local entrepreneurs to create that more diverse offer on our high streets?

I think part of the solution to this lies in retailers working together and, as the Member has said, creating a reason for people to go into town centres. Town centres are shut, often, by 5.30pm. If people are not working in those town centres, in reality they're shut all week. So thought needs to be given to opening hours, I believe, in order to make those town centres more accessible in the future. 

She mentioned her own constituency. I know that underused sites and premises in town centres are being brought back into use, and Aberdare is one of those areas that's been identified for that support. Aberdare, of course, is also one of the 10 additional BIDs that are being developed as a result of our recently announced further funding of £262,000. But, of course, what's important here is the money is made available for local businesses to decide how best to promote themselves. That's the key to it. We don't know how to do it. They will have ideas on the ground. That's why we wanted to make sure that they were fully engaged and have been from the start.

Additional Learning Needs

7. How is the Welsh Government supporting children with additional learning needs in education? OAQ52891

Equity and inclusion are at the heart of our national mission for education. We are committed to ensuring all learners can access a high standard of education and reach their full potential. And implementation, of course, of the Additional Learning Needs and Education Tribunal (Wales) Act 2018 is expected to begin in September 2020.

Thank you. Well, we know that children, pupils, young people with additional learning needs have seen their short-term exclusion rates in school go up, against the overall trend. Only two weeks ago, I was contacted by another parent, in this case in Conwy, where their autistic son had been excluded for 43 days after an autistic meltdown in school—the 43 days coincidentally taking him to the end of his term at the end of primary school. He then got, the parents told me, no support for transition into secondary school—because their son was 'such a naughty boy'. How, therefore, will you as a Welsh Government be ensuring that the education sector across Wales understands the court ruling in August, where the National Autistic Society intervened on behalf of some parents, and the court ruled for the first time that all schools must make sure that they have made appropriate adjustments for autistic children or those with other disabilities before they can resort to exclusion. 

14:10

Clearly, schools will have to take note of the court ruling. I can say that work has already started to support the new statutory system; it's not simply a question of waiting until September 2020 for everything to start. We are upskilling the workforce so that they're able to meet the needs of learners with ALN. That includes developing a professional learning offer for teachers, and funding to train educational psychologists and specialist teachers of the sensory impaired. So, yes, it's important that the law is in place and is ready to begin its course in September 2020, but we are investing to make sure that practitioners will be ready for when the changes come in September 2020.

First Minister, one of the biggest challenges for children with additional learning needs in education is actually getting the additional learning needs recognised. I've had many families who are facing tireless fights just to get that recognition for their child so that they can go through the processes. Now, I appreciate that the additional learning needs Act will actually give them opportunities, and the other measures that you've taken with CAMHS and extra funding in CAMHS. But families need to ensure that that's there. Councils are facing difficult times ahead of them, with austerity and the measures. Will you monitor the funding for additional learning needs very carefully, and ensure that, as that comes in, local authorities will not have to fund additional funding to make sure that that works? Because I'm sure the demand will go up once they realise it's working.  

I can assure the Member that £20 million has been made available for this Assembly term to support implementation of the Act and delivery of the wider ALN transformation programme. And, of course, we will work with local authorities to ensure that they're able to meet their legal obligations from 2020 onwards. 

The hope, of course, is that the additional learning needs Act will truly transform education for these children and young people, but, as we’ve heard, sufficient resources are crucial, but also the appropriate skills. There is a question as to whether those skills are available across the board at the moment. How confident are you, therefore, that the high expectations that pupils, parents and teachers have in light of this new legislation—how confident can you be that these expectations will be delivered, given the cuts that we’re facing, especially?

I’m confident. As I said earlier, we have been developing a structure of professional learning for teachers, and we’ve also ensured that funding is available to promote educational psychologists and specialist teachers. We’ve also implemented a wide package of training in order to help everybody who’s part of the system to support learners with ALN so that they understand and prepare for the new system that’s going to be in place in 2020. So, we’re confident that the system, because of the fact that there will have been quite a long time before this new legislation comes into force—that the new system will be ready to begin properly when the Act comes into force. 

Budgetary Priorities for Local Government

8. Will the First Minister set out the Welsh Government's budgetary priorities for local government? OAQ52913

The Government’s priorities are set out in 'Prosperity for All'. Of course, it is for authorities to determine how they spend their funding allocation through the revenue support grant, together with their other income from specific grants, council tax and other sources.

Thank you, First Minister. I know you like to accuse this side of the Chamber of calling for funding increases in all areas of Government; I'm sure in an ideal world we would all like to see that. But it's not just this side of the Chamber—[Interruption.] Or, indeed, your Minister emeritus. It's not just this side of the Chamber that has concerns about local government funding; the Welsh Local Government Association have also spoken about the way that local services are being threatened, and that the system is creaking under some of the funding problems they've had. Welsh Government is set to receive a significant uplift from the UK Government as a result of the recent UK Government budget. Can you reassure local authorities in Wales that they will at least receive a fair share of this new cake that is coming as a result of that UK Government budget, so that local authorities can at least be a little reassured in the short to medium term that local services can be protected?  

Well, just to reiterate what I said before, local authorities are at the front of the queue. We are looking to see what kind of further financial package might be made available to local authorities, and that is something we will be considering over the course of the next week or two. We do understand, of course, the fact that austerity has imposed such a squeeze on local authority finances, and I believe that, when we state to the Assembly how we plan to deal with the not anything like as much amount as was announced by the Chancellor, but nevertheless some consequential that we have received in Wales, the package that we have for local government will be fair given the circumstances we've found ourselves in. 

14:15
Information Technology Capability within the Welsh NHS

9. Will the First Minister make a statement on IT capabilities within the Welsh NHS? OAQ52927

Yes. Our longer term plan for health and social care confirms we will significantly increase investment in both our IT infrastructure and the skills needed to accelerate digital change across the NHS, and that will include £50 million of revenue and capital in the coming year to support transformational change.

First Minister, you'll be aware of the Public Accounts Committee report that came out last week looking at IT provision within the Welsh NHS, and a damning report, to say the least, it was. I appreciate you won't comment specifically on that report because I will get the line that the Government is considering the report, but IT is a huge component of the delivery of healthcare within the whole of Wales. One element of that report identified the cancer computer network that was, in 2014, delisted from Microsoft support and has had outages on a regular basis. This greatly impacts the delivery of services for cancer patients, as identified by the charity Macmillan. This cannot be tolerated, surely, First Minister. What action is the Welsh Government taking on the broader narrative of improving IT services within Wales in the NHS, but specifically around cancer services that have such a demoralising effect, as the committee report identified, on staff who work in cancer services at Velindre hospital within my region? 

I can't give a response to the recommendations that the committee has tabled, but I will say this: clearly the report makes troublesome reading, clearly there is a need for action, and there will be action. There will be action in terms of funding, but clearly there needs to be action in terms of acceptance of new ways of working. We can't carry on with the old ways of working simply because people are used to them. So, the Government's response to the committee's report will encompass all features of what a robust response has to be and a constructive response has to be, looking at all factors including, of course, the financial.  

2. Business Statement and Announcement

The next item, therefore, is the business statement and announcement, and I call on the leader of the house to make the statement—Julie James. 

Diolch, Llywydd. There's one change to today's agenda—to amend the title of the statement on valuing our teachers—investing in their excellence. Additionally, Business Committee has agreed to reduce the time allocated to questions to the Assembly Commission tomorrow. Finally, no topic has been tabled for tomorrow's short debate. Draft business for the next few weeks is set out on the business statement and announcement, which can be found amongst the meeting papers available to Members electronically. 

Leader of the house, can I call for an oral statement from the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Services on the Welsh Government's recent decision to provide abortions in Wales for women who are normally resident in Northern Ireland? The decision, as you will be aware, was announced on Friday. Just this morning, I received an e-mail from over 60 women living in Northern Ireland asking me to raise this issue as a matter of urgency. These women have said that they are appalled that one part of the UK that enjoys devolution should act to undermine the devolved arrangements in another part of the UK, and they are very concerned, frankly, that the decision to provide abortions has been made in spite of the significant opposition that women from Northern Ireland have expressed during the public consultation that the Welsh Government held on the matter.

Now, I understand from reading the summary of responses that there were 802 consultation responses in all, 788 of which—over 98 per cent—opposed the Welsh Government's plans, and the consultation report says that a significant proportion of those were from women in Northern Ireland. There were just 14 submissions that were in support of the Government's plans, none of which came from a single woman in Northern Ireland. This is an unusual consultation, of course, because it is uniquely and exclusively looking at the impact on women living in another devolved jurisdiction, and I think it's very important that when these sorts of consultations—these unusual ones—happen, the views of women living in that jurisdiction should be taken into account. What is the point in holding public consultations if the outcome of those public consultations is to be ignored? I think that this Assembly deserves an explanation from the Cabinet Secretary as to why he's ignored the views of women in Northern Ireland and why he feels it is appropriate to undermine the devolved arrangements in another part of the UK. 

The Cabinet Secretary's already issued a statement on this issue, and I'm sure the Member is well aware of that. I can arrange for the statement to be forwarded to him if it's slipped his attention.

14:20

Leader of the house, you may remember that, earlier this year, I raised concerns with regard to the fact that over £36 million of public money had been spent on developing a 106-acre strategic business park at Felindre to the north of Swansea, yet, despite being in public ownership for 20 years, the business park was still empty. The Parc Felindre strategic business park has been promoted by the Welsh Government and Swansea council as having, and I quote:

'the potential to become a centre for networking and knowledge exchange in South Wales for emerging industries and specialist sectors such as R&D, life sciences, advanced engineering and ICT'.

The current Parc Felindre website currently states that Parc Felindre has planning permission for B1 and B2 uses, i.e., for emerging industries such as high-tech manufacturing and high-level services. Last week, as you will no doubt be aware, Swansea council leader Rob Stewart announced that the first potential tenant for the site, however, instead of a high-tech manufacturing firm, instead of emerging sectors such as research and development, life sciences, advanced engineering and ICT—the firm in fact was DPD, which wants to build a parcel delivery depot on part of the site. The firm, of course, already has a base in the Llansamlet area of the city. Now, whilst any jobs are to be welcomed, I'm sure that you'd agree that this announcement fails to meet the expectations that the Welsh Government and Swansea council set for themselves. Given that this site has been promoted as a potential jewel in the crown, will the Cabinet Secretary for the economy bring forward a statement on how he sees the site developing over the next few months and years and, following £36 million of public investment, will he state how he believes that the Welsh Government and Swansea council will deliver against the development brief of attracting top-end high-skilled jobs to the site?

Well, Dai Lloyd, thank you for those points. I, for one, welcome the creation of jobs in the Swansea area in the constituency of my colleague Mike Hedges. I think Swansea council and the Welsh Assembly Government have actually worked very hard indeed to get inward investment into that site. I'm very much in favour of the jobs that are coming there, and I think that Swansea council is to be congratulated on its efforts in this regard.

I'm sure that the leader of the house is aware of the research findings issued today by the Welsh Governance Centre on self-harm and violence at the young offender institutions in England and Wales. There were some rather alarming statistics about Parc young offenders' institution in that research. Children aged 15 to 17 recorded the highest rate of self-harm out of the five comparable institutions in Wales and England and also the highest rate of assaults, which is concerning. So, I wondered if it would be possible for, maybe, the Cabinet Secretary responsible for justice to make a statement to the Assembly about why, apparently, these figures appear to be so concerning.

I share your concern entirely. YOI Parc houses some of the most vulnerable people from our communities, and it's extremely important that they receive both the care and support they need to see them safely through to adulthood. Obviously, I completely agree with you that every effort should be made to keep children who are in custody for one reason or another safe and in appropriate placements. It's very much our view that placing a child in a young offender institution within the curtilage of a male adult prison is not conducive to the rehabilitative process that we would obviously like to see for all children. I'm certainly happy to discuss it with my colleague the Cabinet Secretary. We are due to have a discussion about the prison estate in general, and I'll certainly be including it in that and I'll report back to the Member on how those discussions have gone.

Leader of the house, could I seek two statements, if possible, please? The first is from the health Secretary, in relation to maternity services in Wales. When he made a statement in relation to the incident at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital and staffing at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital, he gave an assurance that his officials were working with health boards across Wales to satisfy himself that staffing numbers were up to the quota that was required in those maternity units the length and breadth of Wales. He did indicate he'd bring that assurance back to the Chamber, or certainly write to Members. I'm unaware—and I'm sure it's not a deliberate oversight, but I'm unaware that that has happened to date, but I think it would be reassuring if we could have that information, either via a statement, or certainly in a letter written to Members, that he can give that assurance that maternity units across the length and breadth of Wales are up to quota on the number of midwives and other staff that are associated with those units.

And the second statement or assurance from the Government or assurance from the Government I'd like to seek, if possible, please, is in light of the announcement this morning from the High Court that the Sargeant family do have the ability to take their case forward for consideration by the High Court. I note that the family's solicitors indicated that it is now within the gift of the Welsh Government to come forward with proposals that would allow the inquiry to resume its work, and I would hope that the Welsh Government would, in light of, obviously, the judgment this morning, come forward with proposals, as the solicitors indicated, that would facilitate the recommencement of the inquiry. Can the Government give that assurance that it will be in a position to do that, or is it committed to making sure this case goes all the way through the courts?

14:25

Well, taking that one first, obviously, we'll be taking advice on the best way to deal with the judicial review and, of course, we want the best outcome for the Sargeant family. So, I'm sure that the First Minister and his legal advisers will be taking that into account, and, as soon as we're aware of what's going on, we will make sure that the Chamber is aware of that as well. Obviously, I can't comment on any of the merits of the case or anything else as it's clearly in a legal process.

In terms of the maternity services point that you raise, the health Secretary did indeed say that he would come back to us, and I will explore with him the best method of doing that and the timescale that he had in mind.

Leader of the house, would you consider asking the Cabinet Secretary for the environment to make an oral statement with regard to best practice as to how local authorities should consult with communities about proposed major planning applications, particularly when the local authority itself is the applicant? I met this weekend with residents of Abermule, a village in Powys, who are very concerned about the proposed major recycling centre that's planned for their village. I'm not in any way suggesting that, through the consultation, the county council has done anything improper, but it is clear that the residents of the village—and if I tell you that it's a village of 700 households, and over 500 people are signed up to the protest group, that shows the level of concern—don't feel that they were fully informed, nor do they feel they were listened to. So, I would be grateful to hear from the Cabinet Secretary what further guidance the Welsh Government might be able to provide to local authorities to avoid communities finding themselves in this situation in the future.

Well, obviously we can't comment on individual applications of that sort. I know that 'Planning Policy Wales' is under review by the Cabinet Secretary, and I'm sure she'll take—

Member
Lesley Griffiths AM 14:27:25
Cabinet Secretary for Energy, Planning and Rural Affairs

[Inaudible.]

So, there'll be something coming forward before the end of term on the review of 'Planning Policy Wales' in its strategic form, but, obviously, we can't comment on the individual circumstances.

Can I ask for two statements? Leader of the house, I, again, return to an issue that affects your constituency and mine as well as those of several of our colleagues, namely the closure of the Virgin Media call centre in Swansea. Can I ask for a statement on the support being given by the Welsh Government taskforce to those seeking alternative employment?

And can I also ask for a statement on economic development in the Swansea area, outlining the success of the development in Swansea vale, outlining the success of the SA1 development, and how the Felindre development, which is the next major site on the development plan, will fit into that?

In terms of the ongoing engagement with Virgin Media, the taskforce continues to be engaged with all of the staff and with the company itself. I will ask the Cabinet Secretary, at an appropriate point in the engagement of the taskforce, to update Members by way of letter as to exactly where we are, how many people have gone through the process and so on. There is a normal situation with taskforces, and this one is—as Mike Hedges knows—very much ongoing at the moment. I just remind the Chamber that the company has given an assurance that employees who stay all the way till the end date will not be disadvantaged and, conversely, employees leaving early because they've secured alternative employment will also not be disadvantaged. That's an important concession by the company, it's worth reiterating.

And in terms of the development in the Swansea area, I will certainly speak with the Cabinet Secretary about making available to Members the statistics on the successful economic development arrangements that have been in place in Swansea vale, in his constituency, and the surrounding area for some time.

Leader of the house, may I ask for a statement from the Cabinet Secretary for health on the complaints procedure in the NHS in Wales? Last year, a record number of complaints about health services were made to the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales. Complaints made about Nye Bevan health board increased by 24 per cent. In response, the ombudsman said that evidence suggests

'there is a cultural problem when it comes to dealing with complaints in the Welsh NHS.'

Can we have a statement from the Cabinet Secretary with his response to the ombudsman's concerns and outlining what plans he has to review the complaints procedures in the NHS in Wales?

14:30

Yes. We take complaints right across Government public services very seriously indeed, and we view them very much as a learning opportunity to ensure that services can be the very best they can be and that lessons are learnt from complaints. A rise in complaints is not always a bad thing. Sometimes it indicates a particular confidence in the system, and that people's complaints will, in fact, be answered. So, I'm not aware of the particular circumstances the Member talks about. I will discuss with the Cabinet Secretary for health whether there are any general points that can be derived that would be of use to the Chamber in terms of the overarching points that he raises on the ombudsman's findings. 

I’ve very aware of the concerns of parents, teachers and education leaders in north Wales as a result of GCSE English exam results. It appears that children in north Wales who sat the exams in the summer of 2018 have been let down. Up to 700 children could have been impacted by this—children who would have had grade C or above if they’d been treated equally with children who sat the exams in 2017. This affects their career options for the future, which is clearly unfair.

There is a further claim—a very serious one—that teachers in north Wales have lost confidence in two bodies: Qualifications Wales and WJEC. Will you ensure that these concerns are taken seriously? Will you ask the Cabinet Secretary for Education to conduct a short inquiry to see what has gone wrong? Qualifications Wales has conducted an inquiry—I’m aware of that—but perhaps there is a need for a further inquiry and an independent one.

Qualifications Wales is independent of the Government. That's its role, and it has conducted that inquiry and it has been very clear that it doesn't think that there is an issue as the Member sets out. I'd just remind the Chamber that Qualifications Wales was set up with that independent remit in the first place in order to be distant from the Cabinet Secretary on these decisions. 

Leader of the house, earlier this year, I raised the issue of pollution emanating from Tata with you and, basically, the pollution being a nuisance—'dust' as it's known. It does cause great problems for many of my constituents. Following the issue that I raised, I was informed that the Minister for Environment might be meeting with Tata, and I know that she's attended the air quality unit in the university bay campus as well. Could we have a statement from the Minister outlining the issues that she identified as a consequence of that, so that we can talk about how we address the pollution issues in my constituency and how Tata are working towards improving the well-being of the individuals living close by?

At the same time, could I also have a statement from the economy Secretary in relation to Tata, as to what the Welsh Government is doing to discuss with Tata the investment in modern equipment to ensure that the modernisation of the plant also works towards diminishing the pollution?

Yes, I'll ensure that the Minister writes to the Member and copies it to all other Assembly Members. I think there are a number of us with an interest in that, and that can encompass the issues that arise in the Cabinet Secretary's portfolio as well. 

I call for two statements, firstly on something often referred to, which is the reduction of single-use plastic, but in the context of reusable bottles. I've been asked by water company Hafren Dyfrdwy Limited, Severn Dee, to join them in promoting their Refill in Wrexham initiative, which is launching, I believe, tomorrow, working collaboratively with the Welsh Government and foundling not-for-profit organisation City to Sea, where a national tap water campaign will encourage businesses, cafes, museums and restaurants to provide free refills, with businesses simply displaying a blue refill sticker in their windows, and a supporting smartphone app showing the locations of all water refill stations. 

Secondly, can I call for a statement on myalgic encephalomyelitis or chronic fatigue syndrome—ME/CFS—in Wales, after I hosted three weeks ago the showing of Unrest in the Senedd and the discussion on behalf of ME support in Glamorgan and WAMES, the Welsh Association of ME and CFS Support in Wales? We heard that the cost to the UK economy of these conditions is £3.5 billion per annum. We heard that WAMES is calling on the Cabinet Secretary to address as a matter of urgency the continuing need for improved access to timely diagnosis, for GPs to fully understand the symptoms of the condition, and for the development of clinical expertise in Wales, with a standardised training and awareness programme. Also, we saw a copy of the ME Trust 2018-21 strategy, the 'Vision into Action' paper, saying that parts of the UK, such as Wales, have no specialist services. And, finally in this context, I'd like to consider the evidence we received from Dr Nina Muirhead, not only an NHS doctor but also an academic who's currently working with Cardiff University in implementing a pilot trial, introducing ME/CFS into the medical school curriculum here, uniquely so far in the UK. She says that she's very concerned that NICE guidelines say that graded exercise therapy, GET, and cognitive behavioural therapy, CBT, are the recommended treatments in NICE guidelines, when she says that these are causing harm, potentially, to patients and should be removed, as they have in America by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

14:35

Well, the Member has done his usual very good job at highlighting the issues he wants raised all by himself, so I don't think there's any need for a supporting statement. And I know the Minister is very pleased with her refill policy, and no doubt will be bringing something back to the Chamber in the course of it to tell us how well it's doing.

Leader of the house, there’s been quite some expectation of a statement and a vote on the future of plans for the M4 in the south-east over the next few weeks. We expect something—or we did expect something—at the beginning of December. Could you explain to the Assembly what the likelihood is at the moment that there could be some delay in the timing of that debate and give us an explanation of some of the factors that will influence that timetable?

Yes, certainly. When I was stepping in for the First Minister during First Minister's questions, I set out for the Assembly the legal process in which we are involved as a result of the inquiry and its findings, and the quite specific and very legalistic process that that follows. We haven't scheduled that debate so far because we're in the process of that. We have kept some space available on the Plenary timetable, should it be possible to schedule it in the time frame that was originally envisaged. We still hope that that might be the case, but, if not, then I'll certainly provide an explanation of exactly where we are and what the timescale has become.

Leader of the house, today is World Kindness Day. It's a day to celebrate and promote kindness in all its forms, from small acts of kindness, to fighting for a new, kinder politics, which is something that I've been calling for since arriving in this place, with support from Members from across the Chamber, including Darren Millar, Bethan Sayed and Julie Morgan, just to name a small few. The little conversations you have each day are all the experience you need to actually help save a life, and it's why I'm really pleased to be supporting the Samaritans' Small Talk Saves Lives campaign, and I hope Members, and the Welsh Government themselves, will support that with me as well. In a recent speech, I said that there are some, including the powerful in our economy and in political life, who cannot imagine that kindness works as a political strategy, and, once again, I do not agree with that. So, I was absolutely delighted to read the recent report from the Carnegie UK Trust, 'Kindness, Emotions and Human Relationships: the Blind Spot in Public Policy', and, as it rightly highlights, there is now a growing recognition of the importance of kindness and relationships for societal well-being in public policy making. So, with that in mind, leader of the house, what collective steps is the Welsh Government taking to make sure this becomes a reality?

I completely support Jack Sargeant in his campaign for this. I had no idea it was World Kindness Day, but I'm very happy to be told that and to say that that's a very good idea. I'm certainly very supportive of the Small Talk Saves Lives campaign from the Samaritans, and their excellent work. I had the privilege at lunchtime today to be sponsoring the multifaith forum and its community walk, and the real privilege of talking to people about how much each individual contribution to the way that we conduct ourselves in our society matters and builds up into a whole of which we can be proud, whereas everything that we do that we might not be so proud of also builds up into something, and that individual lives, and individual actions, very much matter. So, I entirely endorse his remarks. I have not read the Carnegie UK Trust report, but I will make sure that I do so. I'm sure it says something very similar. And I was very proud today to be standing with a forum of people who agree that, here in Wales, we can build a better future for Wales, based on acceptance, embracement of everyone here and of kindness and neighbourliness in all of its forms.

14:40

Leader of the house, are you able to inform Members when you expect to be able to make a statement on lot 2 of phase 2 of the Superfast Cymru programme? I see you smiling as I ask the question. And, secondly, can I request a statement from the Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Transport on when he'll be providing Members with a copy of the remit letter and business plan for Transport for Wales that he's already committed to doing? A remit letter for Transport for Wales, I'd suggest, should have really already been made available to Members by now.

On that second one, I'll certainly discuss that with my Cabinet colleague and make sure that it's circulated as soon as possible. The reason I was smiling, Russell George, is because I'm answering oral Assembly questions tomorrow, and a large number of them are tabled on the issue that you raised. So, if there is a need for a further statement after that, I will certainly make sure that it happens.

3. Statement by the Cabinet Secretary for Education: Valuing our Teachers—Investing in their Excellence

The next item, therefore, is a statement by the Cabinet Secretary for Education on valuing our teachers—investing in their excellence. I call on the Cabinet Secretary for Education to make the statement—Kirsty Williams.

Diolch, Llywydd. As we move closer towards the realisation of our new curriculum for Wales, we are accelerating the pace in developing the professional learning culture and infrastructure to ensure that curriculum reform becomes a reality. Recognising and promoting teaching excellence is one of the priorities in my agreement with the First Minister. It is a key objective of 'Our national mission', our shared action plan for education reform, and it is crucial to translating the new curriculum into practice. Although we have already made significant inroads in supporting practitioners, our journey is far from complete. To support us in this endeavour, a robust approach to professional learning is vital. The world’s highest performing education systems have vibrant, engaged educators and support staff who are committed to continuous learning. Our new curriculum cannot be delivered without a high-quality education workforce. That is why I am committed to developing a national approach to career-long professional learning that builds capacity from initial teacher education and is embedded in evidence-based research and effective collaboration. 

Through early engagement with the draft curriculum, pioneer schools have considered immediate professional learning implications, and it is clear that a national approach is needed as we rapidly move towards publication of the draft curriculum. The approach is centred on the learner and embodies the four purposes of the new curriculum. It is designed to be responsive to school, local and national priorities, and encompasses the individual learning journey of all practitioners. The new professional learning curriculum is based on the professional learning standards and exploits the benefits of a blend of approaches. The approach has been developed through a process of consultation and co-construction involving the OECD, the unions, universities, regional consortia, local authorities, school leaders, pioneer schools and many others. A range of research projects have been undertaken to provide an evidence base for the components of the approach and ensure overall coherence. I would also like to take this opportunity to recognise the work of the Children, Young People and Education Committee and their constructive challenge on professional learning in supporting the delivery of the curriculum. Last year’s committee report helped bring together valuable input and advice.

When the draft curriculum is launched in April 2019, we will further develop our understanding of the professional learning challenges associated with implementation in schools.  The investment that I'm announcing today gives us and the system the tools to do this successfully. Our own made-in-Wales approach to professional learning is a key point in our reform journey. It pulls together our new professional standards, the schools-as-learning-organisations approach and the professional learning model to create a vision fit for our evolving system.

The new approach will also include a focus on supporting teachers to better understand and improve mental health and well-being. We have listened carefully to the profession on this, and the work that was undertaken by the CYPE committee. In this spirit, I'm committed to making available significant additional funding and resources to support professional learning. In this financial year, we will make an additional £9 million available, and in the next financial year this will increase to £15 million. This means that, in total over the coming 18 months, we will provide an additional £24 million to support the implementation of the national approach. This is the single biggest investment in support for teachers in Wales since devolution. The money will go to the front line and will be targeted to create and release capacity at school and cluster level for structured, managed and resourced engagement with the professional learning needs of the new curriculum. We are expecting a profound transformation in the way our practitioners and leaders think about their professional learning in light of the new curriculum, and we need to provide support to schools to enable them to make this step change. 

This investment will enable teachers, leaders and others in school to take the time that they need to make changes and refine their practice. There will be flexibility as part of the funding, allowing schools to work together in ways that suit their own circumstances. It will support teachers to develop the skills needed for the new curriculum design and delivery, in line with the fundamental shift in approach required in the new curriculum. And it will support dedicated school and cluster-level professional learning coaches and leaders—a key recommendation from university and international research in this area.

Presiding Officer, our national approach to professional learning is fundamental to how we value our teachers and invest in their excellence. We are moving forward in our reform journey with clarity and confidence, giving our teachers the support and investment they need to ensure that they keep on raising standards across our education system. Diolch yn fawr.

14:45

Thank you very much, Cabinet Secretary, for your statement today. We're very happy to support quite a lot of what you're saying on this, because we recognise, of course, that Donaldson will require some major reskilling of our teachers and other support staff, hopefully, as well, with the freedom to respond more directly to the different learning styles of pupils, rather than Estyn's more prescriptive take on teaching, shall we say? Thank you also for your comments on the Children, Young People and Education Committee. I think it's a point worth making that constructive criticism is about helping this place do a good job, it's not just a 'Let's get the Government' moment, tempting though that is occasionally. I imagine that you will, of course, be looking forward to our next inquiry, which is on school funding, which, I think, actually, does speak to this statement to some degree as well.

You say that the approach to this new funding on supporting teacher development has been co-constructed with a number of interested parties, including local authorities. Were they aware of your intention to earmark this very welcome new funding for this purpose in the way that you have? And are you confident that this is what it'll be used for as soon as it gets to councils? I appreciate what you say, that this is for the front line, and, obviously, as Welsh Conservatives, we support any direct funding to schools, but I'm quite curious about how you'll monitor the use of this money when you—well, obviously, you know where local authorities are on this at the moment, and there is some public sympathy for the position that they're putting forward.

With regard to the specific amount of money, how did you conclude that succeeding in developing this new professional learning, to the level needed to be successful, was going to cost £24 million? Did you argue with the finance Cabinet Secretary that, actually, to get this absolutely right, you might need more, but this was all he was prepared to give you? Either way, actually, if the local authority is able—and, obviously, this is what I was after in my first question—to use some of this money slightly differently from the purpose for which you intended it, would that actually then diminish the availability of actual funds to provide the training that you think is needed in order to get the job done? I think one of the things we'd all be worried about is that, as a policy objective, this could become fragile and maybe even fail if the money that you've identified as being absolutely necessary doesn't get there.

My next question is: 'What's absolutely necessary?' The £24 million—obviously, the finance Cabinet Secretary said that for next year we're talking about £15 million. Another £9 million has appeared from somewhere, so I'd like you to tell us from where that £9 million has come. I'm not saying it's unwelcome, but with just five months to go before the end of the financial year, how do you expect that £9 million to be spent meaningfully, when any national approach is only anticipated as being rolled out, really, from next year? And moreover, the development of the professional learning offer—only £5.8 million was anticipated as being necessary to develop that. So, that's already developed, effectively, so where does that £9 million fit in? Is it for roll-out? And how would you do that in five months' time?

I heard from your statement that there are a range of research projects ongoing. Well, presumably, they're not going to be ready to inform how that £9 million is to be spent. Or is there something you really, really could bring forward into this year? Because if there is—and there may well be—that's obviously going to release £9 million at the other end of next year's budget. What do you anticipate spending that on? Who are the professional learning coaches and leaders that you're anticipating? I mean, are they available now, or is the anticipation that they would be stepping up and helping us roll out this good plan next year? Are the schools clear about who they would want to release, if you're able to bring a lot of this forward?

I just want to make it plain, really, that I'm asking these questions not to challenge your policy objective, but bearing in mind that local authorities have been clamouring for extra money, not least for their schools budget, how was the decision made that this £9 million, which has come from somewhere, goes for this very creditable and worthy objective at the same time when schools are saying, 'Actually, we can't afford to run our schools.' So, if you could help us and explain that, I would be very grateful. Certainly, the money is welcome, it's just the immediacy of the use of it that I'm curious to know more about.

14:50

Thank you very much to Suzy Davies for those observations and questions. I think it is important to recognise the role of the committee in this regard. When the committee looked at the curriculum, this was the committee's No. 1 recommendation: that we needed, as a Government, to address the professional learning needs of the staff, if the objectives of the curriculum were to be developed. I hope that the members of the committee who worked on that report are pleased that we have taken their views into consideration when doing this.

Let me be absolutely clear about how the money will get to the front line. So, in this financial year, the money will be allocated to the regional consortia, who have been involved in the development of this programme and are confident that we can get those resources out to the front line. We're not starting from scratch. There is much evidence base already that has been undertaken, and our pioneer schools that are involved in professional learning have already been trying out some of these techniques. So, this is not a standing start. This is informed by practice that has already been undertaken in schools, and there are some wonderful examples that I can point to. For instance, King Henry VIII school in Abergavenny: a relatively new professional development pioneer, but working really, really hard, not only within their own school, but actually with surrounding cluster schools, to really look at what are the professional learning opportunities and needs if we're to get ready for the curriculum—very proactive in that. Romilly Primary School: again, another example where, already, the mapping has been done for individuals to identify what they feel they need to get ready to be ready for the new curriculum. But, clearly, some of this will have to be developed further when the details of the AoLEs are released in the spring of next year. That will shape our ongoing discussions about what's needed.

The money for next year will be a hypothecated grant to local authorities, which has to be spent on these purposes. Both with regard to money to consortia and to schools, we will be looking to ensure transparency in the method of allocation of the resources and also the monitoring of the funding. Now, there is always, is there not, a balancing act to be struck between creating huge amounts of bureaucracy, especially for individual schools, to account for money, and making sure the money is used for what it is intended for? Therefore, we will be working with regional consortia, who will be required to publish their spending plans for the money, and we will be monitoring the uptake of professional learning opportunities by professional group and by individual school. So, we will be expecting the collection of that data so that we can satisfy ourselves as to what use is being made of the money, but it's a balancing act between creating a bureaucratic nightmare for people and allowing the money to be used for the purposes that it's intended to be used for.

I don't have rows with my colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Finance. It's not in my interest to have rows. I think you used the word 'arguments' with him. But he is aware that, if our curriculum is to be a success, then we have to invest in our teachers to enable them to do that. All the work that we have done on the curriculum will come to naught if our teachers are not in a position to implement that successfully on behalf of their students. The examples of sorts of things that schools will need to explore—we'll be looking at the implications of the new content, new approaches for planning and realising learning, new approaches to assessment of children's progress, developing the skills for school-level curriculum design—something that perhaps schools have not been quite so used to doing—developing collaborative arrangements for school-level curriculum from four to 19, so actually getting schools to work together in both the primary and the secondary phases to ensure that there is the pathway for individual learners. Implications of the AoLEs, for instance—we will have a new AoLE of health and well-being. That, in some ways, will be a challenge to the sector in this particular area, and that's why we need to make sure that our teachers are confident that they can make the most of the opportunity of having that new AoLE.

What do we expect the money to be used for? Well, we are confident that schools are in a position to map the learning needs of their teachers. We will expect them to use the money for releasing and covering staff time to be involved in collaborative work. Often that's really difficult. I think we had this conversation just the other week in committee about when budgets are tight, the ability to release staff for training disappears, and this now means that there will be dedicate resource to allow that to happen.

I'm very alive to and alert to the significant pressures on local government. You will have heard the First Minister's answers today about the Government continuing to look to see what more we can do to alleviate those pressures. I'm sure that, if the Government is in a position to do that, local authorities will want to prioritise spending on schools and to ensure that children in their local area get the best possible opportunities. But having done that, we need to make sure that those teachers in those classrooms have the skills and the training that they need. In responding to the committee's report, we're also responding to consistent calls from the unions to have this money in place, and I was delighted yesterday to see the very warm welcome the teaching unions gave to this announcement.

14:55

Raising standards and raising the status of the profession is something that Plaid Cymru has been calling for for many years, of course. If the workforce isn't given—

I'm ever so sorry, but I don't have the translation, Presiding Officer. I'm very sorry.

No, it's my fault, sorry. It's working on this one—I'll borrow Lesley's.

Too much information, Cabinet Secretary. [Laughter.]

Siân Gwenllian to carry on.

Okay. I hope you can hear me now, and I hope the interpretation is clear too.

Excellent. I will start again, therefore.

Raising standards and raising the status of the profession is something that Plaid Cymru has been calling for for many years. If the workforce isn’t given quality training throughout their career, from the initial teacher training up to retirement from the sector, then standards won’t improve in our classrooms.

Before turning to one issue that's been discussed here on a number of occasions, namely supply teachers and their part in the process, I also want to touch on the issue Suzy raised on the £15 million, and whether it would have been better for that funding to go straight into the core budget, rather than being a specific grant.

Now, I sympathise with you, because I’ve just said that I do think that we need to invest in professional learning. But, of course, it is an exceptionally difficult period for our local authorities, and the WLGA have said that they would very much prefer to see that £15 million being spent on retaining posts—either 350 experienced teachers or over 600 teaching assistants—as would have been the case if this funding had been included within the core budget.
I do recognise your dilemma: you want to spend the money in the right place, but, on the other hand, it is a period of crisis and our schools need every penny to retain their experienced teachers. So, I would just ask you to consider and to dwell on that a little.

To turn specifically now to supply teachers, there are four times more private agencies for supply teachers now than there were just a few years ago, and there are concerns about pay and conditions and professional development for these teachers, with very many schools increasingly reliant on supply teachers to cover teacher absences. It’s crucial, therefore, that those supply teachers also get training and that their information about curriculum developments is up to date.

In a statement by you recently on the Government website, it was stated that professional learning will be available to all practitioners in schools, not just teachers, so I would like to know whether there will be provision for supply teachers too and how you’re going to ensure that that works.

The statement also says that funding will ensure that the changes are made in a way that will prioritise the welfare of teachers and will have as little a disruptive effect on pupil learning as possible, and that the funding will help to ensure that staff are released for professional learning too. So, can you expand on how that is going to happen? Is that inevitably going to lead to more reliance on supply teachers? So, on those specific points and your comments on the core budget against the grant. Thank you.

15:00

Diolch yn fawr, Siân, and I'm so sorry for the disruption in making you start again. My Welsh is improving, but it's a blwyddyn 2 or blwyddyn 3 standard, and not good enough for the Chamber.

I think what I absolutely welcome is your understanding that without excellence in the teaching workforce, we cannot realise, I believe, a shared endeavour across this Chamber to provide first-class education. That's why the committee stressed so much the importance of finding these resources. If we look to past Estyn reports, it has highlighted the need to invest in the quality of our teaching as a priority, and that's why it's absolutely right to find this money.

We can have a debate about the mechanisms by which this money will find its way to the frontline, but, as you've recognised yourselves, often the first thing to go is investment in staff and training. And, therefore, if we are to invest in our staff, I have made the decision that the only way that we can be absolutely sure that that will happen is via a hypothecated grant. I don't think it should be a binary choice either—that this is either about money for the RSG or money for professional learning. We need to do better than that, and I would also reiterate that the Government continues to look at what more it can do to support the RSG going forward.

But, Presiding Officer, Siân Gwenllian used the word 'crisis'. What I believe will be a crisis is if our new curriculum is introduced on a statutory basis in 2022 and our teachers are not in a position to deliver it. Now that, indeed, would be a crisis. And unless we prioritise this expenditure on support and professional learning, the new curriculum will not do what it needs to do. I think that indeed would be a crisis that we would find ourselves in. That's why I have made this decision to prioritise and make these resources specifically available to invest in our staff. As I said, it's been done in conjunction with our teaching union colleagues and they have welcomed this resource. 

You're also absolutely right to recognise that both teaching assistants and supply teachers have an equal right to access professional learning opportunities. They are much valued and valuable members of our education workforce and have a significant role in developing and delivering on education, on our national mission. Therefore, we will be, as part of the monitoring process, looking to consortia to report on the amount of training that is taken up and made available both to supply teachers, but also looking and giving schools flexibility on their ability to use their resources to support their teachers but also their teaching assistant staff. Some schools already do that; some schools say they're not in a position to do that. So, there will be flexibility for individual schools and clusters to make arrangements for both teaching staff and teaching assistant staff and we will be monitoring issues around supply.

I know issues around supply continue to be of concern to Members across this Chamber; they are of concern to me. That's why we continue with our work to look to enshrine better terms and conditions via our national procurement of these services and look to ensure access to professional training as a prerequisite to agencies working in this area. As I said, I'm under no illusions about the challenges facing the RSG, but, if we're serious about getting the profession ready for the new curriculum, and we are serious about the curriculum being successful, then we have to invest in our workforce and we have to do that now, at this point. It'll be too late if we wait for a couple of years' time, if and when the financial system may or may not be—the financial sector, financial atmosphere, may or may not be better. We have to take this opportunity right now. 

15:05

Thank you for your statement, Cabinet Secretary, although I note that, once again, you press-released your key announcement before announcing it to us. Since you're able to issue a press release on the matter, you're clearly in a position to issue the statement to AMs, but you didn't. I do find it rather disappointing that you released it to the press first before making the announcement here. 

But, turning to your statement, I'm sure teachers and schools will be deeply, deeply grateful for the funds that you're announcing today—or rather that you pre-announced. I just wonder: is this an admission that you're seeking to change too much too quickly? Have you had to pledge this amount of funding because of the cost of supply teachers because you haven't sorted out an alternative to using agencies, which charge a fortune to schools? Was it always the plan to spend the huge sum of £24 million in this way? If so, why haven't you said so before—that is, when you announced the new curriculum?

You say it's to ensure that changes are made in a way that will prioritise the well-being of teachers and minimise disruption to pupils' learning. I don't object in principle to the allocation of the money. I think I've always said that, any measure that you introduce, whether it's the additional learning needs Bill or whatever, unless the resources are there to enable those changes to take place, it's not worth the paper it's written on. I'm just questioning why this is now coming up and why it hasn't been considered before, because surely you should have considered this when you first announced your plans to introduce all these curriculum changes, and surely you should have done an impact assessment on how much these changes were likely to cost the teaching profession to implement them.

In the Government written press release, you're quoted as saying that the money shows how highly we value teachers and professional learning, yet earlier it says it's to make the transition to the new curriculum as smooth as possible. But which is it? It seemed a little bit contradictory there. Is this a new opportunity for professional learning, as your quote suggests, or is it a response to panic that teachers will need hitherto unforeseen help in adapting to all the changes, as the rest of the article suggests? Is this new money, or is this money that will have to be found from the existing dwindling education budget that the Labour Government you're propping up has cut in real terms? If it's not new money, do you feel embarrassed that your changes are requiring money to be taken from other parts of the education system in order to help smooth the transition to the new curriculum because you're trying to make too many changes too quickly? Twenty-four million pounds is a lot of new teachers, a lot of new books—a few rural schools and local schools could avoid closure. So, I think we and the taxpayers deserve to know what is having less spent money—sorry, I'll start again—what is having less money spent on it in order to fund your latest announcement. And can you give us an itemised list of what will be getting less funding than anticipated as a result of this and what assessments you and the rest of the members of the Cabinet have made of the implications of those reductions? Thank you.

15:10

Presiding Officer, sorry, I must have been mistaken, because I thought that the Children, Young People and Education Committee that made their No. 1 commitment around resulting professional development for the curriculum was a unanimous report that was signed off by all members of the committee and the last I remember Michelle Brown was a member of that committee, so she was well aware of the discussions surrounding that.

I have never, ever, ever said that we would not need to invest in the professional learning development of our teaching staff. I have never said that. I know better than anyone that, if we are to have the education system that I want for my children and, indeed, every child in Wales, it is a quality education workforce that will deliver it. Now, the Member says 'Why now?', and that is a legitimate question to ask. We're making this announcement now because the research has been done, the work has been done, to identify what professional learning opportunities and requirements are arising out of our curriculum changes. That's why it's important to make this announcement now, because we have the research—we've done the research with our universities, we have consulted with our teaching profession, we have looked at the impact of curriculum changes in other nations and what they have done to make sure that their curriculum reforms have been successful. That work is now completed, our pioneer schools have fed back, and we're in a position to ensure that that national approach is taken forward.

Now, Michelle Brown says, 'Do the public really want us to spend this money?' Well, I would argue— I would argue—[Interruption.] I would argue that the public do expect this Government to invest in the teachers up and down this country who stand in front of their children day in, day out, delivering not only the current curriculum but the future curriculum—a curriculum that, with the exception of UKIP, it has been acknowledged that we need here in Wales. And to give it its best chance of success and not to set our teachers up for failure, we need to invest in them. The Member says, 'Which is it? Is it an investment in our teaching staff or is it an investment in our curriculum?' Well, you can't have one without the other. This is about valuing our teaching profession; it is about saying that we will prioritise their learning and development. We will not just talk about it, we will fund it, and we will give them the very best chance of making the exciting new curriculum for Wales a reality for them, but, more importantly, a reality for our learners.

Can I thank the Cabinet Secretary for your statement? I very much welcome it and the additional funding. As you've highlighted, this was an area of great concern for the committee and I, for one, am really pleased that the Government has been able to respond so positively.

As you've highlighted, it is about the new curriculum, but it is also about investing in our workforce, who are our greatest asset. And I know that local government have been quite vocal about this funding, but I wonder if you'd take this opportunity to reiterate to me now that, although we desperately need more funding for local government, and I hope that will come, it is absolutely crucial that we have this protected resource to invest in our skilled teachers, especially as Estyn has consistently told us that teaching is the weakest aspect of the system. 

I had one further question, which was around what you've said about the funding contributing towards helping teachers with emotional and mental health. That also responds to the committee's 'Mind over matter' report, and I wondered if you could say just a little bit more about how you would anticipate that part of the money being spent.  

15:15

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) took the Chair.

Thank you, Lynne, and I'm glad that we've been able to use the committee's report and the evidence that was taken to help inform and shape Government policy. As Suzy Davies said earlier, that's one of the strengths of our system, I believe. I'm a great believer in, also, the principle that Government and civil servants don't have all the answers, and it is important to use the recommendations of the committees, and the time and effort they put into those reports, to help guide policy. 

It has been necessary for me to hypothecate this funding to ensure that it is spent for these purposes. Without such hypothecation, I think there is a very real danger that this money would not be available for professional learning opportunities. I guess the WLGA press release confirms that—that they would not have prioritised that; they would have spent it not on less important things, but they would have spent it on different things. I will always continue in the Cabinet to look to maximise the resources going to the front line in education. As I said earlier, the Government continues to look to see what more can be done to support local authorities through the RSG, but it is absolutely crucial, if our education reforms are to be successful, that we invest in our teaching profession. 

Now, the Member will be aware that 'Successful Futures'—'Donaldson', as it is known—highlights, and I would quote, that

'Children and young people need to experience social, emotional and physical well-being to thrive and engage successfully with their education.'

And one of the four purposes of the new curriculum will be to support children and young people to become healthy, confident individuals, and those four purposes are, of course, at the heart of our new curriculum. So, we need to be in a position to ensure that teachers have that training to allow them to realise one of those purposes.

One of the 'what matters' of the health and well-being area of learning and experience will focus on mental and emotional health, and, as I said in answer to questions earlier, one of the things that schools will need to address as they prepare for the new curriculum is how they will be able to interact with the AoLEs, and how they will be able to have confidence that their staff are in a position to deliver that. Given that that is such a fundamental part of that area of learning and experience, we would expect that schools—perhaps in the past, in some schools, they haven't had a great deal of attention on this area—would want to utilise some of this resource to be able to put themselves in a position to deliver on that AoLE, and on that 'what matters' statement. 

Of course, there will be greater clarity for everybody regarding the AoLEs when they are published in the spring of next year, and then that will help us guide our next set of professional learning opportunities. 

4. Statement by the Cabinet Secretary for Local Government and Public Services: Reform of Fire and Rescue Authorities' Governance and Finance Arrangements

Item 4 on the agenda this afternoon is a statement by the Cabinet Secretary for Local Government and Public Services: reform of fire and rescue authorities' governance and finance arrangements, and I call on the Cabinet Secretary for Local Government and Public Services—Alun Davies. 

Member
Alun Davies AM 15:19:19
Cabinet Secretary for Local Government and Public Services

Deputy Presiding Officer, we are all rightly proud of our fire and rescue services. They respond swiftly, effectively and selflessly to serious threats to our safety. More than that, their prevention work has helped reduce the number of fires and fire casualties by more than half since responsibility was devolved to Wales in 2005. That is a huge success, but it is also a challenge. As the number of fires falls, the role of the service will become broader. Firefighters have the skills, training, capabilities and values to deal with a wide range of other incidents, such as floods, medical emergencies and terrorist attacks. Taking on this broader role is not only beneficial, I believe it is essential to the service’s future. 

We already have several fire stations in Wales that typically deal with less than one emergency call-out to a fire every month, and many that see only a few dozen a year. We understand that this is not sustainable and it makes recruiting, motivating and retaining firefighters very difficult indeed. But nor should such stations be closed, as that would leave large parts of the country with no fire service at all. 

So, the future depends on realising the potential to do more in collaboration with other agencies. To achieve that and secure a future that is viable, the service needs to be governed and funded in a modern, accountable and sustainable way. At present it is not.

There are other growing challenges too. People are living longer and staying independently in their homes, which is exactly what we want to see. However, older people are at greater risk of fires in their homes. At the same time, the lessons of the Grenfell Tower tragedy still have to be fully learned and applied. Climate change will increase the risks of flooding and wildfires, and public finances are extremely constrained—a situation that is only likely to worsen in the aftermath of Brexit. Again, this calls for the highest standards of leadership and transparency, ensuring the service has the resources it needs, but also placing that in a wider context of other public services.

The current governance and funding arrangements are not fit for this new purpose. They mean the service is run by what are, in effect, large committees at arm’s length from all other local services and without any kind of direct democratic mandate. There isn’t any real public debate or accountability about what the service does or ought to do, and insufficient engagement tools to respond to changing local needs. Yet such debate and such accountability have never been more important.

Fire and rescue authorities’ funding arrangements have similar flaws. They involve the authorities levying contributions from local authorities, at a level that the fire and rescue authority alone determines. There is no external control or approval at all at either the local or the national level. At a time of continuing, severe austerity across all public services, that is difficult to justify. There needs to be a sustainable source of funding for the growing range of non-fire responsibilities that I have already described this afternoon. 

Deputy Presiding Officer, the current arrangements date from the mid-1990s. Whilst they may well have been adequate at that time, the service and the demands placed upon it have changed significantly since. No-one should see this as any kind of criticism of the current fire and rescue authority members, managers or staff. We know that they have done their best within the flawed system, but that system itself now needs to change.

The White Paper I am publishing today sets out our preferred approach to reform. This is grounded firmly in the need to enhance local control of the service, and to generate effective leadership and real accountability at that local level. That will mean fire and rescue authority membership becoming more streamlined and more transparent, with greater capacity and capability to provide strategic and political leadership and to build connections with other services and agencies. I also want to see effective challenge at that level from non-executive members.

Fire and rescue authorities' budgets also need proper scrutiny and approval. That role should rest with local authorities, which provide the great majority of fire and rescue authority funds. We appreciate emergency services can neither manage nor predict demand, so that must be reflected in their resourcing. If there were any threat to that or the service standards we enjoy, the Welsh Government would not hesitate to step in.   

Most of these changes can happen relatively soon, without the need for primary legislation. In the longer term, I am keen to explore a more radical reform that would fully support the changing role of the service and would enable proper professional leadership of it, with appointed members remaining in an oversight role. I also want to explore options for sustainable and transparent funding for the range of responsibilities we expect the service to discharge.

We must focus on the outcomes of reform than merely on the means. I would, therefore, also be happy to consider other options for reform through the consultation process that would clearly meet the criteria that the White Paper demands. 

However, let me be very clear that under no circumstances am I prepared to transfer control of the service to police and crime commissioners, as is happening in England. I do not either intend to alter the current pattern of three fire and rescue authorities or amend their existing boundaries. As we have seen across the border, those approaches create more problems than they would resolve. 

I also want to reassure our firefighters that reform is concerned solely with how the fire and rescue authorities operate at the corporate level, and not with front-line delivery. I want to provide the service with clearer, more accountable leadership and fairer, more sustainable funding. There is nothing here that will affect the numbers of firefighters, the training regimes, appliances, fire stations or other operational matters. 

Deputy Presiding Officer, change is all too often a response to failure and creates even more burdens on an organisation in difficulty. That is not the case here. I want to build on the successes that we have seen and to sustain the successes that the service has enjoyed to ensure that we do have in the future a service on which we can all continue to rely. 

15:25

Well, as you say, we are rightly proud of our fire and rescue services. You state in your opening paragraph that they've worked to help reduce the number of fires and fire casualties. In fact, since 2001-02, a little bit further back than you look, they've reduced by 69 per cent. However, how do you respond to concern that the number of fires attended by Welsh fire and rescue authorities in 2017-18 actually increased by 3 per cent, reversing that trend, with the number of secondary fires rising by 13 per cent, and grassland, woodland and crop fires by 22 per cent, and 15 casualties from fires in Wales, which is actually 50 per cent higher than when 10 fire casualties in Wales were used as an argument in favour of what became the fire sprinkler legislation?

You refer to older people being at greater risk of fire in their homes and the lessons of the Grenfell tragedy. What consideration are you giving or have you given to the Building Research Establishment report commissioned by the Deputy Prime Minister in the UK in 2002 and the follow-up report by the Welsh Government itself at the tail end of the fire sprinkler legislation, which recommended fire sprinklers in high-rise towers? It was less enthusiastic about new-build residential properties. But it appeared that no response to that was taken until after the Grenfell tragedy.

In a letter to me on 20 June, you said that you don't agree that older people are at particular risk of electrical fires, whether in terms of the source of fire or the cause. I believe you might have since met Electrical Safety First. I think you had a meeting scheduled with them for July. They produced figures showing that, of 1,485 reported domestic fires last year—I presume that's UK—71 per cent of those were electrical fires and 63 per cent in the kitchen. And, in that context, what is the Welsh Government doing to raise awareness of fires caused by electricity in Wales?

My final questions relate to your proposed changes to governance and funding arrangements, which you say are simply not up to the job. You then ironically attribute the failings to

'large committees of backbench councillors, at arm’s length from all other local services and without any kind of direct democratic mandate.'

That's a model that, as I recall, you defended when the UK Government was proposing police and crime commissioners, using almost identical words at that time. You say that will mean fire and rescue authority membership becoming more streamlined and transparent, and budgets needing proper scrutiny and approval. Well, thankfully, the fire and rescue authorities are transparent with their meeting documentation, which is surely a valid point when considering their current governance and finance arrangements. The report from the chief fire officer in north Wales to their fire authority on 17 September referred to key issues set out in a letter to fire and rescue authority chairs in February by you for the meeting the three chairs had with you at the end of April, to your then engagement of Professor Catherine Farrell of the University of South Wales and Professor Rachel Ashworth at Cardiff University, to speak with representatives of the fire rescue authorities and the WLGA, and that their report was submitted to you. And the report from the deputy chief officer of South Wales Fire and Rescue Authority in September to his or her authority attached a summary feedback drawn from the meetings held with the fire and rescue authority chairs, chiefs and additional personnel and the WLGA. How, therefore, do you respond to the findings in that report that chiefs and chairs are not resistant to change, and provided many examples of how they embraced it, but they raised a series of concerns regarding the suggestion that fire and rescue governance in Wales might be reformed?

How do you respond to the statement that several queried the lack of clear evidence and rationale for reform, feeling that perceived problems with the current system had not been clearly identified, making it difficult for them to estimate the added value that might be gained through any change, to the statement in which some of them raised concern about changing a system that operates well and, quote, 'breaking a system which is not broken', giving the example that it was identified that accountability for fire was highly sufficient given the scale and budget for the service, relative to systems of accountability for other public services operating at a much larger scale, and to the statement that interviews emphasised the importance of the electoral link via local authorities and provided examples of how this was currently operationalised to deliver accountability, transparency, consultation and information? And, finally, how do you respond—I won't read them all because there are a lot of them—to the summary of suggestions for improvement in that report, which I'm sure you have engraved on your bedroom wall, but which included the need for consistency around member role specifications, the clarity around the scrutiny and challenge role, an indication of the level of member development and support, and the need for members with expertise from outside the service, from areas such as health and social care, to be co-opted onto the fire and rescue authority, or a new national issues committee scrutiny sub-committee? Thank you. 

15:30

Deputy Presiding Officer, I had a terrible fear halfway through that contribution that the Conservative Member was going to read out the notes of every meeting that I've had over the last year, and read out from the notes of every meeting the contribution of every member in that meeting. [Laughter.] It could have been a very, very long session. 

Let me say this: we have, as the Member has indicated, shall I say, had a very long conversation with both the current chairs and the chief officers as we've moved through this process. And I have, over the last year or so, sought to develop a debate, with the chairs particularly, over the need for reform and the shape that that reform will take. I introduced the academic element to that on the basis of an attempt to shape and to allow the development of their own thoughts on some of these issues. And let me say this: this is a White Paper, and it is a White Paper that seeks views on particular proposals, but it is not a White Paper that rules out alternatives. In fact, were the Member to take the time to read the White Paper in any detail, then he would see that, in the White Paper itself, we do take the time to say that if there are other proposals, other suggestions, other recommendations for reform, then we're very happy to take that forward and to consider those additional proposals. At no time in this process have I ruled in or ruled out any alternative measures or any alternative suggestions, with the exception of a national force, a national brigade, and also a transfer of responsibility to the police and crime commissioners. Those are the two options I've ruled out, but I've not ruled out other options. If the Conservative spokesperson does have any suggestions he wishes us to consider, then I'm more than happy to give due consideration to those issues. 

But in his contribution, he does, in many ways, make the case for reform. It might break his heart to learn this, but he does make the case for reform, because he outlines the changing nature of the threat from fire. He describes secondary fires, grassland and moorland fires, and he may wish to appreciate the expertise and specialisms that we now have in the fire services in Wales. He may be aware that the south Wales fire service spent a great deal of time working with others on Saddleworth moor, for example, dealing with the fires that took place in England, across the border, over the summer months. And that expertise—that knowledge, that specialism—is something that we want to enhance and invest in for the future. The abilities that the fire and rescue authorities and services now have is far beyond that which we would have potentially envisaged in the 1990s, when the current structures were put in place. And it is right and proper, therefore, that we meet an evolving and changing need with a debate and a discussion about how our structures are fit for purpose to meet that changing and evolving landscape.

So, I hope that he will perhaps lift his head a little, and give due consideration to these matters. And if he wishes to join the debate about the future, then I'm more than happy to have that conversation with him. The challenges that we will face in the future are great. We know, and we've debated already, the changes to a pattern of fire responses required. The Member asked a number of questions on Grenfell Tower and our response to that. I will say to him that our response has been led by the Minister in these matters, and she has, as he will be aware, made a number of statements to this Assembly on the evolving response of the Welsh Government to the absolute tragedy of Grenfell Tower. And we will be continuing, and she will be continuing, to lead that response.

But let me say this: as we move forward to respond—and, I believe, put in place a new structure to respond to Grenfell—it is right and proper that the fire and rescue authorities play a full and leading role in responding to that. That is why we need fire and rescue authorities that are fit for purpose, with the funding and the governance in place to enable them to do so.

15:35

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Before I start, actually, it's entirely right that you are in the chair for this statement, DPO, being as you are the inspiration behind the fire sprinklers legislation, and it is right that we acknowledge that once again.

Can I thank the Cabinet Secretary also for his statement and welcome the production of this White Paper? It is right that we pay tribute to firefighters—we are rightly proud of them and all their rescue services. They rightly, as is always said, put their bodies on the line. And as is mentioned, there are other growing challenges too—people are living longer, as the Cabinet Secretary mentioned. And, yes, certainly in the community and primary care, we are keeping people at home now who we didn't use to keep at home. Routinely, we have very frail 80 and 90-year-old people living alone, and that is a particular challenge, and it's a challenge that, from time to time, I'm in conversation with fire colleagues as to how to address those challenges. So, certainly, the field is changing, with more emphasis on prevention work, as the number of fires, as we've heard, reduce. In fact, that's become obvious when you look at the Welsh cartoon involving that scion of the firefighting community, Sam Tân—firefighter Sam. Obviously, I'm watching these videos now with my grandson and they are entirely different videos to the ones I was watching a generation ago with my children, involving that accident-prone community of Pontypandy—far more emphasis on prevention these days, and the expanded role of the fire services generally, which is to be welcomed, naturally.

Now, in 1999, only one of the 999 services was devolved to this Assembly. By 2005, the second 999 service was devolved, and that was the fire service. We still await further devolution of 999 services like the police. So, I welcome the Cabinet Secretary's comments about not devolving any control of the fire services to the police, certainly, who remain not devolved at the moment. So, I do welcome those comments. But, in terms of consistency, would the Cabinet Secretary agree with me in terms of—? I realise you've put your proposals, but you also said it's a White Paper, so you're entertaining other opinions. In terms of co-working between the different 999 services, how do you feel that consistency of boundaries and consistency of the means of funding the different 999 services would this help co-working and co-location of emergency responses to all of the 999 emergency services? 

Talking about your White Paper, on the second page, you've set out some proposals here. Have you got a preliminary idea of what the response of the fire and rescue authorities is to your proposed reforms? Plainly, we still remember that you had a little local difficulty recently, with regard to reforming local authorities. Have you had any indication of how fire and rescue authorities view these plans, because, obviously, we wouldn't want any danger of a rerun of that debacle, would we? Thank you. 

15:40

Deputy Presiding Officer, we met, of course, at Southwark cathedral when we were both there to pay tribute to the work of the Fire Brigades Union and firefighters over the last century, and the Plaid Cymru spokesperson is absolutely right to pay tribute to you in the work that you have done in the time that you've served here, both through the legislation you pioneered, but also, I think, as being—how shall I put this gently and diplomatically—a loud and clear voice for the fire service, for firefighters and the place of the fire service in our national life. I think all of us would want to join together across the Chamber in paying tribute to you for that work over the years. 

I'd be disappointed were you to show any leniency to me at all. [Laughter.]

But let me say this: clearly, the issues of prevention and awareness are issues that the fire services will be focusing upon in a way that perhaps they didn't in the past, and certainly not 20 or 30 years ago, and that is something that I hope we will continue to focus upon as we see a continued, I hope, decline in the overall amount of fires, particularly domestic fires.

I think it is right and proper—. And if the Member is able to take the time to read through the White Paper, he will see that we are seeking to be consistent in terms of the principles we follow in pursuing a reform programme. Those principles include localism. I want to see locally accountable, locally governed services. It is not my wish or my style to attempt to nationalise, if you like, the whole of our public services. I believe local accountability is important. I listened to an excellent lecture at lunchtime from the outgoing chief executive of the WLGA, and I was struck listening to him by the shared territory, where we share the ambitions, both himself and others, regarding the vision for the future of local government and local service delivery that we all want to see in the future. 

Clearly, we have given some consideration to the issue of boundaries and co-location of the blue light services. It is my strong view—it is a view of the Welsh Government—that policing should be devolved to this place, and we I think see the advantages of coherence in policy making and coherence in service delivery where we have a holistic way of managing and delivering absolutely core and key services. The points raised by the Member for Cardiff North during business questions of course refer to services where we do not have the same level of consistency and are unable to deliver a holistic approach to policy, and I think we see the consequences of that in its impact on people up and down our country.

Can I say, I have pursued, in my time here, the issues of co-location and co-working between the blue light services? I hope that the reforms we've put in place will be reforms that will enable that to continue, and I hope that we will see more co-location and more co-working in the future. In terms of the view that the fire and rescue authorities take to these matters, being a reforming Minister in this country can be a difficult task. Wales is a beautiful, wonderful country, full of conservative people for whom reform can sometimes be very, very difficult, and what I have to say to the Member is that this is a radical Government and we do seek radical reform. The Member can decide whether he sits as part of a reforming Assembly or not, and that is a matter for him to take forward, but I will say to you, in my experience of this place, when we are reforming, when we are looking towards putting in place structures that will serve us into the future, then we are delivering at our best for the people we seek to represent.

15:45

Thank you, Cabinet Secretary, for your statement here today. I've got a couple of questions for you. Firstly, will you join with me in congratulating the extrication team from the South Wales Fire and Rescue Service? Not only are they now five times UK national champions, but, for the third year in succession, they recently won the world rescue organisation challenge in Cape Town, firmly putting South Wales Fire and Rescue Service on the map.

With regard to the consultation document, I notice your comments about governance arrangements. I'm not convinced that Cabinet members are better placed to offer scrutiny than backbenchers, who may hold senior scrutiny roles. For example, there's no requirement for councillors sitting on police and crime panels or local health boards to be executive members, and I'm concerned that this could lead to a hollowing out, with a small executive doing more and more and scope for backbench councillors being reduced. I'd be interested in your response to this.

Thirdly, I note the comments around reducing the size of authorities. However, I know authorities are required by statute to have a variety of standing committees, and a larger fire authority, of course, means that these are more manageable. What consideration have you placed on how this would work in practice?

Finally, in terms of the funding model, I do see the benefits of moving to a precept model, and, when I've met with the south Wales service, I've always been impressed by all that they do. I'd welcome more information around ministerial intervention, though, about what could happen when authorities don't actually agree on the level of the precept. So, for example, if it was just one authority that disagreed and the others agreed on the level of the precept, what would happen in that case? Because I'm concerned that that could lead to some potential problems.

I'm grateful to the Member for her general welcome for the White Paper, and I'd certainly want to join her in congratulating the south Wales extrication team on the world rescue challenge that they have succeeded in winning again. It is one of the great pleasures of elected office that we all share the opportunity to meet people who perform such fantastic roles within our communities, and, certainly, I try to spend time talking to firefighters who are on the front line, as it were, delivering the services that we all need to see in our community. Can I say this? When I stood in the Rhondda talking to the firefighters who had just come back from Saddleworth and talking to firefighters who were dealing with the moorland fires across south Wales over the summer, I was struck by their professionalism, by their knowledge—sheer knowledge—and understanding of the threats that our communities were facing, but also their commitment to use that knowledge, to use that experience, in order to protect our people and our communities, and I think that's something that strikes me time and time again.

In terms of the role of backbench councillors, what we're seeking to do is to ensure that we have the levels of governance that are in place that can provide us with the assurance that we require in order to deliver both the local scrutiny and accountability—which we want to hold locally rather than create more national structures—but, at the same time, ensure that we do have the ability to link the work of the fire service into the work of other services being delivered by that authority. The points that were made by the Conservatives—by the Plaid Cymru spokesperson, I'm sorry—in this matter are quite important, because, in the same way as we want to see the devolution of policing to ensure that we have the coherence of ability to respond to and plan service interventions, we also want to have that same coherence between local authorities and the blue light services. And it is felt, and I feel, that by having an executive councillor or a cabinet member serving on the fire authority then we will have that link, and we will have more, and greater, coherence. Clearly, that is a debate that we will have over the coming months.

In terms of the funding models, I'm anxious that we are able to put in place a structure whereby local government and the fire and rescue authorities are able to jointly work and jointly agree a budget for the future. That is what I want. The Member quite rightly identifies areas where that can potentially not happen and where there are problems within that. Clearly, there would need to be backstop powers here to resolve that. What we're suggesting in this White Paper is that the backstop provides powers for Ministers, but powers only to intervene under certain circumstances and then to intervene to deliver a budget that is no higher than the fire and rescue authority proposes. So, those powers are delineated, if you like, or certainly have parameters beyond which a Minister could not intervene. But I see those as very much backstop powers that would enable an authority and a fire and rescue authority to reach agreement and to adjudicate if they're unable to do that. But I don't see those powers as being powers that would be available to a Minister unless the locally held powers, and unless the local authorities involved, were unable to reach agreement between themselves.

15:50

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I think I will start by saying we all owe a debt of gratitude to firefighters who enter buildings when the rest of us are leaving. A huge amount of work has been done on fire prevention, and credit has been paid to you and the sprinkler system, but the huge amount that's done by the fire service in going out and putting smoke alarms in houses have obviously saved many hundreds of lives.

I was hoping this statement would have involved the reconfiguration of fire and rescue services. I have long been of the view that a mid and west Wales fire and rescue service makes little operational sense. A major fire in Welshpool, for example, will want tenders from Wrexham; it won't want them from Swansea or Neath Port Talbot.

On governance, there is a substantial democratic deficit. This is not unique to the fire and rescue service; it covers all joint working. That's why people have some concerns over joint working. How will changing the current membership of fire and rescue authorities ensure that members are accountable to their electorate? Why not have a report from the fire and rescue to a scrutiny committee at each council, or, better still, have an annual report from the chief fire officer and the fire authority to a council meeting? How will appointing non-council members and reducing the number of councillors involved improve accountability?

On funding, can the Cabinet Secretary name another council service that would not like to change the fire and rescue authorities' ability to levy on the councils concerned? I think that both education and social services would leap at the chance to have this opportunity. So, we do need a better method of funding fire services because they are funded entirely differently. And it didn't matter when we had a growing amount of money in the public services; it does matter now. And I think that the Cabinet Secretary is right—we should not be afraid of change, but what we should always do is make sure change is for the better, not for the worse.

I always welcome a contribution from the Member for Swansea East to the debate on reconfiguration of local services, and the consistency he shows in his contributions is sometimes to be welcomed.

Can I say—? Can I say that I agree with the points that he's made? And can I say also that, in many ways, we have inherited systems and structures from the past and that it is our duty and responsibility to ensure that they are fit for the future? And it is our responsibility, therefore, to look at those processes and structures to ensure that, periodically, we do have the opportunity to give the sort of considered thinking that these matters demand of us. In terms of the suggestions he's made over reports to scrutiny committees of local authorities, I very much would welcome that. Do you know, one of the debates and discussions we have around the powers held in local government and elsewhere forgets that the power of a local authority isn't simply the powers that are provided to it by statute, but the power it has as an elected body to represent the interests of the people it serves? As such, it can demand those reports, it can demand that people appear to give evidence, it can create the structures of scrutiny, and it doesn't need statute to do that, and it certainly doesn't need a Minister's blessing in order to do that. That is a matter for local government and I would encourage all local authorities across the whole of the country to ensure that they take forward their scrutiny function with that creative approach, if you like, which isn't delineated simply by what they're able to do or compelled to do by law. So, I'd certainly welcome that. 

In terms of the points that he makes—and I will try to make good time, Deputy Presiding Officer—I have considered the issue of boundaries, and it was a point raised, of course, by the Plaid Cymru spokesperson as well. At the moment, I do not believe that the case has been made for a significant change to any of the boundaries or the numbers of the current fire and rescue authorities. But what I am not doing is closing the door to such change, were that case to be made. Now, it is clearly possible to point to communities either side of any border and to say that those communities should work together in order to deliver services. That's the easiest thing in the world to do, and I accept that, clearly, in the example quoted, those authorities would, I would anticipate, work together to deliver the services they require. What we're talking about here is a different matter; it's about governance, and I'm yet to be convinced that there is a case for change along the lines that have been described by the Member, but my mind is not closed to that, and if he's able to present the arguments for the change he suggests, then I'm very happy to give that due consideration in the future.

In terms—. This is my final point, Deputy Presiding Officer. In terms of the point he makes on the additional I think it's two or three members that would sit on reformed boards in order to provide accountability, scrutiny and challenge, we are looking to ensure that we have the right mix of locally elected, locally accountable members who are able to provide challenge to the management of the authorities, but also to ensure that we have the skills mix within the new boards of fire and rescue authorities to ensure that we have the people there who are able to provide challenge to that board as well. That is the role of a non-executive director in many businesses up and down the country. It is a role that I would want to see performed within these new boards, but, again, this is the beginning of a consultation, not the end of a consultation, so I'd be very happy to join the debate if Members wish to contribute further over the coming months.

15:55
5. Statement by the Minister for Children, Older People and Social Care: Improving Outcomes for Children: Reducing the Need for Children to Enter Care, and the Work of the Ministerial Advisory Group

The next item is a statement by the Minister for Children, Older People and Social Care: 'Improving Outcomes for Children: Reducing the Need for Children to Enter Care', and the Work of the Ministerial Advisory Group. I call on the Minister, Huw Irranca-Davies.

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I'm grateful for this opportunity to update Members on the collaborative approach we are taking to improve outcomes for looked-after children in Wales.

'Taking Wales Forward', Deputy Presiding Officer, sets out this Government’s commitment to

‘examine ways of ensuring looked after children enjoy the same life chances as other children and if necessary reform the way they are looked after’.

Our national strategy, 'Prosperity for All', also describes our priorities around supporting children and families at the edge of care and young people in care, particularly as they transition towards adulthood. Through my Improving Outcomes for Children programme, we are taking an ambitious cross-Government and cross-sector approach to help us achieve our priorities and fulfil our commitment. This programme, supported by my ministerial advisory group, chaired by our colleague David Melding Assembly Member, is covering a broad range of work, looking across the spectrum of care and support, but with a real focus on addressing the factors that can lead to children requiring local authority care.

The ministerial advisory group has representation from all senior leaders and organisations with an involvement in children’s services. The group has been instrumental in advising me on, and co-producing, the improving outcomes for children work programme, and I'm pleased our partners are actively involved in this work. In fact, I attended the last ministerial advisory group meeting, and I could see again that this collaborative way of working continues to be a real strength of the group.

So, what have we achieved? Well, you will remember last year we invested £9 million to support care-experienced children. I'd like to tell you some of the headline outcomes on how that money was used by local authorities. Over 1,900 care-experienced children across Wales have received funds via our £1 million St David's Day fund, to support their transition to adulthood and to independence. Our £5 million investment in local authority edge-of-care services meant that local authorities helped over 3,600 children to remain within the family unit, by working with more than 2,000 families. We now have edge-of-care services in all local authorities in Wales. Welsh Government funding has led to the establishment of regional Reflect services. During the past year, these services have supported 150 young parents whose children have been placed in the care system with a wide range of emotional and practical issues. This is a popular service, and we expect to see the number of referrals rise significantly in the coming years. We also provided £1 million to extend the provision of personal advisers, so that all care leavers up to the age of 25 are offered a personal adviser, regardless of circumstances. As a result, an additional 20 personal advisers have been recruited, and the extended offer has been taken up by more than 500 care leavers. And finally, care leavers have been helped to access opportunities in education, employment and training, with 70 young people now participating in a local authority work placement or a traineeship scheme. These are real, tangible outcomes that are having a direct and positive impact on the lives of children and young people.

We have progressed other areas of work. For example, in May this year, we published research on placement outcomes for children after a final care order. This important research showed that over three quarters of the children in the study experienced a high level of placement stability as well as identifying other positive experiences of care. We have also developed national standards for independent reviewing officers and for independent visitors to ensure there is quality and consistency of service. And we funded the first year of the implementation of the national fostering framework. I am very pleased that my colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Finance last week published a consultation on exempting all care leavers from paying council tax so that we have a consistent approach right across Wales.

This is all good progress, but there is still more to do. Before the summer, I asked for the work programme to be accelerated and intensified, to expedite delivery against the key challenges, including those that were identified in 'Care Crisis Review'. As a result, the improving outcomes for children work programme has been refreshed. This third phase of the programme continues much of the important work that's already in train, but it places more emphasis on reducing the need for care by providing effective, preventative, early support to families, as well as ensuring therapeutic support to children and families is intrinsic throughout the programme. To inform this phase, my officials have carried out an appreciative inquiry across six local authorities. The inquiry highlighted good preventative social work and family support being delivered by local authorities. All of the local authorities demonstrated integrated care systems where multi-agency teams provided timely support to families so crises could be de-escalated or avoided, thereby helping families to stay safely together. To illustrate this, one example has been the use of family group meetings. This is a family-centered approach that enables children, young people, as well as wider family members, to participate and own solutions that will improve their circumstances. This is very much in keeping with our co-production approach, which is central to our Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014. Investment in such preventative and early intervention approaches really does realise savings in the long term.

As part of the draft budget proposals announced by the Cabinet Secretary for Finance for 2019-20, an additional £30 million has been allocated to regional partnership boards to help strengthen these integration arrangements. Today, I'm pleased to announce that £15 million of this funding will be allocated to progress our shared ambition of reducing the need for children to be in care. This is an exciting opportunity to make a real difference to a whole-system change. 

I would like local authorities, third sector organisations and health boards to work together to use this fund flexibly and creatively across their regions. My expectation is that this money focuses on early intervention and preventative services for families in need of help and assistance, building on the approaches we already know help families avoid crisis situations. For those children and young people in care, I want to ensure we have in place the therapeutic services needed to help them successfully reunite with their families, where appropriate. 

Before I finish, I want to remind everyone that it is National Safeguarding Week. I'm really pleased that the Welsh Government is working with Stop It Now! Wales to launch a new campaign, which will help encourage the people of Wales to play their part in stopping child sexual abuse.  

I hope, therefore, that you will agree that we have made significant progress in terms of improving outcomes for children in Wales. I am looking forward to attending the improving outcomes for children national event on Thursday, where there will be an opportunity to share learning, to share innovative approaches and to recognise successes. But, most importantly, it'll be an opportunity to listen and learn from individuals who have first-hand experience of being in care. Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer.

16:05

I speak as chair of the ministerial advisory group, which makes my response from the Conservative benches slightly irregular. So, I'll have a judicious mix of both roles, I think. But it is a serious point here that I think work in this area, which is very challenging, but there's a lot of good practice and good outcomes out there as well, requires to the maximum extent a non-partisan approach, and I think this work throughout the life of the Assembly has achieved that level of consensus, and the need to ensure better outcomes for those children and young people that we look after.

I think, Minister, that you're right to emphasise that the ministerial advisory group is now entering a key period, and this has required the work programme to be updated. I just want to say a little bit about that in a moment. It reflects, really, I think, the five-year term of the work. The initial phase was very much filling in the data gaps, commissioning some really important studies—you've referred to one that demonstrated the good outcomes that were measured after a final care order, and something like 75 per cent of children felt that they'd benefitted. So it is a sector, often, that is portrayed by its problems, because sometimes events occur that are really devastating, and obviously quite properly very newsworthy, but there's an awful lot of good practice out there, and it is very much building on that.

As far as the new work programme and its additions and development go, can I think Phil Evans, the co-chair of the MAG group and the former director of social services in the Vale of Glamorgan, and also the officials in your department that have produced the work plan? It has required a huge amount of work. It's been shaped by MAG, but we still needed the engine room of the operation group, led by Phil Evans, to draw it all together. It's largely analysis of the existing work and what's been achieved, a reflection on the data and reports that I just mentioned, and extensive consultation. I must say the consultation efforts are greatly aided by the other co-chair, Dan Pitt, from Voices from Care, and indeed the whole collaborative working of the ministerial advisory group has really been possible because of the extensive involvement in the group of various Welsh Government departments that have a key role—housing and public health, for instance—local authorities' children's services, and also the cabinet leads and the non-governmental organisations—the third sector. I think it has really given the group a dynamism and an ability to speak to you with authority and really provide that high-level advice that you need.

The programme now reflects the importance of prevention and early support, and, in addition, things that it has decided to emphasise that were either in the work plan but not prominent enough, or have now been absorbed into the work plan, and I'm just mentioning the changes here. But the emphasis on therapeutic services, I think, in large part, was driven by Lynne Neagle's or the committee that Lynne chairs' 'Mind over matter' report, which had a big impact in the discussion that the MAG was having, and the importance of therapeutic services linked into emotional well-being, which is constantly referred to by looked-after children as something that they really, really need, and that's a level of support.

Another area that was fairly new to me, I have to say, but has perhaps been overlooked, and that's the level of kinship caring that goes on. And that's a resource—many countries absolutely have a policy to make that more of a resource. But, certainly, it is used, it is very appropriate in certain cases, and perhaps we've not been as advanced in our thinking in this area in how we can support kinship carers.

The well-being of future generations Act has also shaped the MAG's work very considerably, and I know that's an important feature for you as well.

The problem of homelessness for care leavers is a very great one, and how we support care leavers in their tenancies is clearly a crucial element of our role as corporate parents, one can say. And I'm glad that a piece of work has been commissioned from the Wales Public Policy Institute, and I think that will help very much. I think, for care leavers, the housing situation is as crucial as the education situation and educational attainment is for those in care when they're going through formal education.

And then adverse childhood experience frameworks have come to play a big part in tying together a lot of the various threads of the ministerial advisory group's work.

Can I also welcome the funding? The £9 million that launched the programme a couple of years ago has a huge, I think, impact on local authorities developing best practice, and I think it sends a very positive signal that there is another funding stream.

And can I just say, do you agree with me that what we are seeing emerge is a fuller concept of the corporate parenting role? Which means every public agency, but also in the political field—obviously, you have a leadership role there, but it's also your colleagues, it's also us as Members that scrutinise the Government, and it's key partners, politicians in the council—the cabinet leads and the committee chairs that are doing the scrutiny. And all councillors ought to, surely, or all councils ought to follow the decision that Cardiff council made to train all their councillors in looked-after children's issues. And they're making progress on that. Perhaps not as quickly as they would like, but that's the sort of leadership that we do need to see really emerge to give us a full corporate parenting picture. Thank you.

16:10

I did allow the Member there some licence, given that he chairs the ministerial working group—task group, but that same licence doesn't apply to the rest of the speakers, I'm afraid. Neither does it to the Minister for winding up as well.